009.001

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“Everyone must be on their best behavior,” Saija said in a mocking tone of voice. It wasn’t hard to guess who she was mocking.

Anderson had been running around the entire school, snapping at anything out of place. Which, in his eyes, was just about everything and everyone. Especially anyone who had their uniforms crooked, ate messily, slacked off during class, or breathed too loudly. He had landscapers come in and tidy up every visible plant around Brakket.

Eva had been concerned that they might stumble across her fledgling ritual circle until she realized that visible just meant visible from the main building and the pathways in the Infinite Courtyard. They wouldn’t be going half as deep as her circle.

Construction crews had been working at all hours of the day and half the night just to repair the damage to the plaza fountain and the relatively minor damage to the dormitory buildings.

Eva’s blood-based floor replacement was still around. She got the feeling that it was one of the few things he was actually pleased with.

“Apparently, he changed his mind. We are not to display any inhuman characteristics unless told otherwise.” With an overly exaggerated sigh, Saija flopped over on the table, spreading her arms out against the surface. It wouldn’t be surprising if she went off and joined the drama club.

When she first sat down with them, Eva hadn’t recognized her. Without her wings, tail, and bright red eyes, Saija was just an exceptionally pretty human. She still felt like Saija. Eva got over her confusion relatively quickly once she realized that.

Not to mention the fact that she sat down with them and immediately started complaining. Humans, outside her group of friends, did not simply sit down for a casual chat at her table. If they approached at all, they would be timid and constantly shooting glances at Arachne.

Even with demons walking the halls on a regular basis, apparently Arachne was still intimidating enough to ward people away.

Looking around the hall, Eva found that every demon besides herself and Arachne were entirely human looking. Most had been human or human enough anyway, but many of the smaller characteristics had vanished. Horns and tails mostly. She could still feel them, so she knew where to look.

Of course, three demons weren’t anywhere to be seen. Technically four, if she included the deceased Timothy.

It was strange. She knew they were still around. She even knew who they had bound themselves to—three of the older members of the diablery class.

But she couldn’t feel them. Not even the slightest hint. And unless the human was actively channeling one of their demon’s powers, there wasn’t a single tell that she could pick up on from the outside. No changing eye color or sharpened teeth.

Which, really, she shouldn’t be surprised about. Though Shalise and Prax had somehow messed up their bond, Shalise had looked perfectly normal unless using Prax’s muscles.

The whole situation had made Eva somewhat self-conscious. Her first thought upon looking around and realizing that everyone was looking human was to wonder if she shouldn’t be wearing gloves and her blindfold again. Unlike all the demons around her, she couldn’t just magic away her demonic appearance. Neither could Arachne. If the two of them wanted to hide, they had to physically do so.

Her second thought was to screw that. The blindfold was annoying and the gloves uncomfortable. Her contacts had been obliterated along with her disguise when she had paid a visit to Martina, so they were out of the question as well.

The demons were likely to come out sooner or later. Why bother hiding what they were for a day or two.

And poor Saija was obviously thinking the same thing. Unfortunately for her, she had a contract requiring her to obey Anderson. The only way out of it was to get one of the human students to partner up with her, either as a bound familiar or a simpler contract.

In the week and a half since the demon hunters attacked, Saija had been sitting with them at lunch every single day. Always next to Irene. She followed her around and sat next to her in every single class.

The hinting could not be more obvious. Why Saija hadn’t just asked Irene to take up her contract was beyond Eva. Maybe the human had to initiate the request to make it valid. Or maybe she had asked and Irene declined.

But it wasn’t really any of Eva’s business. The succubus could go ahead and–

Her thoughts were cut off as the three tone pre-announcement chime played over the speakers.

“Evaleen Spencer, please report to the dean’s office immediately. Evaleen Spencer to the dean’s office.”

It took a great deal of effort not to grit her teeth. The new secretary had apparently not gotten the memo about her name.

Her anger dissipated with a short sigh. Something she never would have been able to do two years prior. She really didn’t know why she was getting so worked up. What did it matter what she was called. It had been forever since she last saw her father. With any luck, she wouldn’t see him again for the rest of his life.

“Ooh,” Juliana cooed. “Did you get in trouble again?”

“Doubt it,” Eva said as she stood. “Probably just wants me to make changes to the plaza. Maybe he decided he wants a pattern in it after all.”

Arachne stood along with Eva. As Eva expected of her.

Taking a moment, Eva checked her friend’s stomach. It still had a hole in it from the blade of the hunter. Every so often, Eva needed to readjust the hardened blood. The hole was healing and she didn’t want the blood to be in the way.

But it was so slow.

She could normally heal whole limbs in a week or so. A thin slit like the one in her stomach should have mended itself by the morning after.

All the more reason she had been lucky not to have her heart tube punctured.

“I guess I’ll see what he wants,” Eva said. “See you guys in class.”

With a wave of her hand, she stalked off through the cafeteria with Arachne at her heels.

Arachne being around was something of a great comfort. Eva didn’t like Dean Anderson half as much as she liked Martina and she really hadn’t liked Martina all that much. Being alone with him set her on edge for some reason. Probably just Catherine’s paranoia rubbing off on her.

Whenever Catherine had business around Brakket Academy, she always found an excuse to be escorted everywhere. Usually with Eva being the escort. Though she never said it directly, she was obviously trying to avoid being alone with Anderson. At least, that’s what Eva got from her fairly lame excuses. Often involving Eva sticking around her for some odd reason that didn’t make sense once the situation was over.

Such as asking Eva to walk with her so that they could discuss their upcoming ritual, only to not speak a word of it the entire time.

Thinking on the ritual brought up a flash of irritation. Though it was in the middle of November, the typical month for her treatment, Devon hadn’t said a word about her treatment until Eva asked him when they would be doing it. His response had been to shrug and say that they were delaying it. Possibly by as much as three months.

Ever since Arachne died and they had to use the new version of the ritual, there had been drastic changes to Eva after every one. The nubs on her forehead, the sharp teeth, her elongated tongue, and her blood to name a few. He was concerned that her body wouldn’t hold up to such rapid changes and, despite the danger in waiting, wanted to give her body more time to acclimatize to everything.

And that was in spite of Eva’s protests. She felt fine. Nothing hurt. Even a day after the treatment, she had felt fine. What acclimatizing did her body need to do?

But he was the expert. If he thought his precious test subject needed her rest, she really didn’t have much room to argue.

Eva pushed open the doors to the office area adjacent to the front lobby. The secretary—a distinguished older man with circular spectacles—glanced in her direction. As soon as his eyes met hers, he flinched back.

Something that just had Eva rolling her eyes. If Anderson was going to get a new secretary, he could at least get one that wasn’t uncomfortable around demons. The man should know better.

Though, maybe the secretary wasn’t all that bad. He looked mildly ashamed of himself as he cleared his throat. “The dean is in his office,” he said without a hint of a tremor in his voice. “You can go right in.”

“Thanks,” Eva said as she did just as he suggested.

“Ah, Eva.” Anderson turned around as the door to his office opened up. He had been standing next to the window, staring out into the afternoon light.

Martina’s office had been a dark environment. The window curtains were always closed and the overhead lights kept off. Her only source of lighting came from a desk lamp and a few standing lamps around the corners of the room. Her desk had usually had piles of paperwork mounted on top that never seemed to get any smaller.

The current office was almost completely opposite. Natural light poured in through the open window, joining up with the fluorescent tubes in the ceiling.

His desk was clear of all but a single pen and a sheet of paper. He might have cleared it just because he had called up Eva, but it could also be a sign that his secretary was actually doing his job. A stark contrast from the game-obsessed Catherine.

One more obvious difference caught Eva’s eye.

Anderson’s desk was just in front of the window, angled so that his back would be facing outside. He would face the door in a far more welcoming manner than Martina.

When she had been the dean, her desk had been tucked away in the corner. She still faced the door, but also faced her perpetually closed window. It felt far more paranoid than the welcoming of the current room.

“Please, come in,” he said with a gesture of his hand. “Have a seat.”

His eyes were locked solely on Eva, never once glancing over her shoulder to where she knew Arachne would be glowering at him. But she had no real reason to refuse, so she took the center of three chairs. Arachne stood behind her, not taking either of the empty seats. As she sat down, a thought occurred to her regarding just why Anderson might wish to speak with her.

“I’m not wearing gloves or a blindfold,” she said firmly, brokering no room for an argument.

Apparently, she had guessed wrong. Anderson frowned as his face changed from false pleasantry to confusion.

“I’m sorry?” he said after a moment of pondering.

“You told all the other demons to disguise themselves as humans,” Eva said, figuring she may as well continue with her line of thought. “I refuse.”

“Ah.” Anderson closed his eyes and gave a tiny shake of his head. “No, no, that isn’t why you’re here at all. The demons are as they are for one simple reason; I merely wished for our guests to not be too shocked upon their arrival.

“One or…” he trailed off, finally glancing towards Arachne for the first time since they entered the room, “or two abnormalities is far more palatable than a dozen.”

Well, that was good news. For a moment, she thought he was going to ask her to skip class and stay hidden for a few days. Something that Eva would have been opposed to in principle, but would have gone along with anyway to work more on the ritual site.

As it turned out, having an open-sky field was more troublesome for rituals than she had expected. It had rained the day after they started tracing out ritual lines, ruining much of their efforts. Mostly Juliana’s efforts as she was the one who could dig out deep troughs in the ground. Luckily, rain soaked into the ground, vanishing after doing only a little damage.

She would probably be a whole lot more irritated if it had been cold enough to snow.

As such, they had decided not to waste their time trying to dig more until Eva had the time to set up some protections against the weather.

Blood wards were neat things. They didn’t require much effort to set up. Just a little globule of blood being told to keep an area safe would have a sort of invisible mist spread through an area, killing anything not keyed into the ward. It needed a bit of blood as fuel, but not much.

Unfortunately, a blood ward did nothing to protect against falling rain or falling anything for that matter. It certainly hadn’t protected against the falling boulder that Genoa had dropped on the women’s ward during her first meeting with the former mage-knight.

She could put up a blood shield. She had done so during the aforementioned incident with Genoa. Such a shield was not cheap. With the area it needed to cover, she would be going through as much blood as currently made up the ground of the new plaza every week.

Probably. Rough estimates were hard when she had never done such a large shield for any real length of time.

Not really a tenable option unless she was willing to sacrifice huge numbers of people. Which she was, so long as they were the wrong sort of people. But even with her contact in Florida—whatever his name had been—Eva doubted that she would have enough people for more than few days of powering a shield of that magnitude.

Luckily, she had a third option. Thaumaturgy. Setting up such a large ward would be complicated, but not impossible. To make matters better, weather wards were among the simpler types and didn’t take much magic unless it was raining or snowing. Even then, the magic required was mostly negligible. Stopping by once a day to ensure that it was topped off should be plenty.

Eva was planning on trying to conjure up a ward as soon as school ended for the day. She hadn’t ever done a weather ward as part of class, but how hard could it be?

Anderson clearing his throat snapped Eva out of her thoughts. He stared at her, clearly expecting a response to a question that Eva had not been paying attention to.

“Sorry,” Eva said, shaking her head. “What did you say?”

“I said that I called you here to ask about this,” he said with a frown as he tapped the sheet of paper on his desk.

Eva leaned forward to read it as he continued speaking.

“You didn’t sign up for the interscholastic–”

Cutting him off with a wave of her hand, Eva slid the sign-up sheet away from her. There were several names written down. More than she had honestly expected. A number of perfectly normal humans—mostly those in the top two years of school—along with all three of the former diablery students who had taken on demons.

Saija had put her name down for whatever reason, just above Irene’s name. Both names were in the same handwriting and Eva was betting that the handwriting hadn’t come from Irene’s hand. Shalise, Shelby, and Jordan were all missing from the list while Juliana’s name had been crossed out.

Eva distinctly remembered hearing Juliana complain for a few days about how her parents didn’t want her participating.

A few other demons aside from Saija were listed as well. Some on their own, but a few on the same line as human names in parentheses. Bound demons and their contractors, most likely.

“I’m really not interested,” Eva said, keeping her voice polite yet firm.

“After the show you put on last week, and several other events that Martina made me aware of before her untimely passing, I’m afraid I really must insist.”

“Show?” Eva said through grit teeth. “You mean when I skewered a man with crystallized demon blood and blew it up to the point where nothing but his legs remained?”

Anderson winced ever so slightly.

“I didn’t realize this contest would be so vicious and that killing the other schools’ competitors was the goal.”

“It certainly isn’t the goal. It isn’t even an option.”

He sighed, sliding into his chair. “Eva, I know you’re smarter than that. You’re a powerful mage as clearly evidenced by your various altercations with enemies of Brakket Academy. Participating would go a great deal towards ensuring Brakket’s victory.”

“I thought this tournament was to show off our school, what we learn, and how it stacks up to the other schools around America.”

“That’s all true,” Anderson said, dipping his head in an agreeable nod.

“Then I should be the last one to participate. Nothing I do has come from this school. I’m a few months into my third year of instruction. In thaumaturgy, I think I’m right where I should be. Juliana is far ahead of me in that respect. You should be speaking with her instead of me.”

“As soon as we are done here, I will be calling her and her parents in to discuss just that.”

“Outside thaumaturgy,” Eva continued as if he hadn’t spoken, “I have a handful of demonic traits. Which I could ignore and participate with. It might even be representative of Brakket Academy. Especially if you make demons a more permanent fixture.”

“That is the plan.”

“Demons are one thing, but I consider myself primarily a blood mage. I can’t imagine that would be a subject coming to Brakket anytime soon.”

“No, certainly not. In fact, that is another topic I wished to discuss.” He clasped his hands together and looked over the top of his fingers with his elbows on his desk. “I must ask that you do not use blood magic while the other schools are in the area.”

“Wasn’t planning on it.”

And that was the honest truth. Being a diabolist did not automatically make one a murderer. The same wasn’t true about blood magic. While her demonic secrets had pretty much all come out over the course of her school days, she was quite pleased that her blood magic was still a secret to most people.

Even her fairly public use of blood magic when she had killed the hunter wasn’t obviously blood magic. Most humans saw black liquid and didn’t make the connection with blood. Given the size of the pool, who would ever think it was blood? Even if they suspected, she could claim that it was a demonic trait that allowed her to control it.

Which, for all Eva knew, was the truth. She hadn’t dipped her dagger into the blood. It had heeded her commands without any bloodstones touching it. Though it was a useless point to consider. Not a single person had commented about it while Eva could hear.

Though a number of people had started avoiding her. More than normal, anyway. Probably because she had publicly killed a man. Though it was a clear case of self defense.

“Good,” Anderson said with a smile as he put his hands down into his lap. “Now, about signing up…”

Eva let out a long groan as her mind searched for some other excuse to skip out on the stupid contest. Anderson was giving her a feeling that he would keep pressing no matter what she said.

“You haven’t even told anyone what the contest is going to entail. I have so many things to be doing and zero time to study for written exams or whatever this is going to be.”

“No one is going to be told until after the other schools arrive. There will be a large feast on Sunday night where most of the details will be announced. I will say that it is nothing so boorish as exams.”

“It isn’t going to be something like fighting dragons or finding your way through a trap-filled maze, is it?” Both of which sounded far better than exams, but still not things that Eva wanted to do.

Anderson just gave a slight shake of his head before sliding the paper over towards her. He dropped the pen right on top of it.

Eva sighed, glancing towards Arachne and getting nothing but a shrug in return. She could keep fighting against Anderson, but missing golemancy would be annoying. Sitting here staring at his unpleasant smile, Eva very much doubted that he cared how many classes she had to miss.

Whatever, she thought as she picked up the pen. It’s not like this is a binding contract.

Fae could make a binding contract, but this obviously was not one. There were no contract details. Just a simple note at the top saying what the sign up sheet was for. And there were more than ten names. Unless Brakket Academy had some home-school advantage and could field a lot more students than the other schools, some of these people wouldn’t be chosen to participate.

Demons could also form a contract, but their contracts weren’t written ones. If a demon wrote down the terms of their contract, it was more to get a full look at what was being agreed upon before actually committing.

“Happy now?” Eva said, dropping her pen. “If this contest is tedious, I’ll skip it. Find a way to force me to and I’ll deliberately sabotage our school.”

“Don’t worry,” Anderson said, smiling as he took the paper back, “I’m sure you’ll find it both entertaining and enjoyable.”

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008.027

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Eva stood in the middle of a small clearing. Not the one a short distance from her prison. This clearing was out in the Infinite Courtyard in the center of Brakket Academy’s main building. This would hopefully prove to be a much safer alternative.

Or at least, more difficult to reach for the hunters.

One, perhaps the more troublesome one, was dead.

If Eva didn’t miss her mark, the other might return with something of a grudge. Assuming she didn’t starve to death because she couldn’t feed herself with her paralyzed body. As much as Eva wanted that to be the case, she wasn’t going to get her hopes up too much.

But with the death of one hunter and the idol destroyed at Nel’s hands, Eva was feeling safe enough to attempt clearing out an area for the ritual again. There might be other nasty surprises waiting, but it needed to be done sooner rather than later. It needed demons to work.

Between hunters running around and the doll—who Eva hadn’t seen since she ran off after the battle—the ritual needed to be done before they all wound up dead. If they ran out of demons, there would be nothing to do but wait for Life to bring Void over on its terms.

Something Eva had accepted would likely be far more destructive than doing it their way.

But those were all concerns that only might come to be a problem. At the moment, not having a ritual circle—or even a place to start the ritual—was a far greater problem.

Eva glanced over towards Srey. The demon was relaxing on a toppled log, using it as a chair as he thumbed through the pages of a book.

Fiction. Some fantastical story about a steam-powered society, judging by the cover. Not a book on magic or any sort of useful topic. Much like Catherine, he was reading purely for the fun of it.

Demons and their distractions, Eva thought with a slight shake of her head. Maybe I should find a hobby.

“Anyone watching us?”

Srey glanced up from the page. “Nope. We’re good at the moment.”

Eva gave him a curt nod in return as he went back to his book. He didn’t look as if he had any intention of helping out. However, Eva didn’t much care. So long as he warned them of any approaching hunters, his value was perhaps greater than everyone else combined.

Lips tightening as her gaze connected with Arachne’s, Eva offered the spider-demon a small smile.

Arachne was still injured. Even two days after the battle, her chest still had a hole in it. Her legs as well, though she had managed to pull her severed legs back inside her body, making them far less obvious.

It was that sword. Something about it acted similar to nun lightning, though only towards demons. Not quite the same, as it lacked the magic eating property, but it did inhibit healing.

Arachne was healing, just slowly.

At the moment, Eva was torn between destroying the sword or keeping it around just in case she needed to fight some demons. A third option, one she had been considering more seriously ever since she realized just how slowly Arachne was healing, was handing it off to Zoe.

If Zoe could come up with a method of reversing the effects, that could prove invaluable. Any similar swords would be rendered useless as far as their magical effects went. They would still be sharp bits of metal and thus still dangerous, but not cripplingly so.

There was just one problem with that line of thinking.

She really didn’t want anyone else to touch the sword.

Eva trusted Zoe. Quite a lot, in fact. She had been given almost unquestioning support from the theory professor since they first met. That was more than she could say about most other humans.

However, the sword was a danger to Eva. A direct personal danger that couldn’t really be compared to anything else. Not to mention the danger it posed to Arachne, Catherine, Lucy, and… well, just about half of everybody Eva knew. So long as it was in Eva’s possession, hidden behind her blood wards at the prison, it wasn’t going to be used against them.

While Zoe would probably keep it safe, she didn’t exactly have a home to hide it in anymore.

Again.

Though, maybe now that her third residence in as many years had been blown up, she might actually consider Eva’s offer of housing her at the prison.

Of course, Eva wasn’t too thrilled with the prospect of her prison blowing up a few months after Zoe moved in. She seemed to have extraordinarily bad luck with regards to homes. Unless the bad luck followed Ylva around. But Ylva hadn’t been living at her first home when it was burned down by Qrycx and the jezebeth. So it couldn’t be Ylva’s bad luck.

At the moment, Zoe was living with Wayne at his house. A place Eva still didn’t know the location of. She had never once been there. Wayne had never invited her. Or even mentioned his house. For all she knew, he teleported in from wherever Serena lived—a place a few states away based on hints dropped by the vampire.

Ylva had moved into the Brakket dormitory. Eva didn’t know if she had asked Anderson for permission or simply decided that it would be her new residence. Either way, she was now living two doors down from Eva’s dorm room. Along with Nel.

Neither had mentioned Alicia, but Eva had noticed a certain hardness in Nel’s eyes when asked about the former nun. It wasn’t hard to put two and two together.

Of course, neither were in the clearing at the moment. Eva was still keeping the ritual secret. And she was doing a remarkable job of it, if she said so herself. Given her failures in keeping several other things about herself secret—diablery and blood magic, namely—she was quite pleased with the low amount of people around her.

Vektul was here. He had the exact designs for the ritual circle in his head, making him not only indispensable but also more knowing of the secret than most everyone. That said, Eva doubted that he would be helping much either. He really didn’t seem to be the strongest demon around.

And heavy lifting was what they needed at the moment.

Last was Juliana.

Eva gave her a smile.

She only half returned it.

“Ready to begin?”

Juliana fidgeted, glancing around to the other demons. After eying both Vektul and Srey for a moment—something that had Srey shifting in his seat, though he didn’t look up from his book—she turned back to Eva. “Are you sure we should be doing this?”

“Mostly sure.”

The metal coating Juliana’s arms rippled before returning to its still state. “Only mostly? This doesn’t seem like the kind of thing you should be mostly sure about.”

“Well, yes. I agree with that. However, we’re not actually performing the ritual today, as I said a thousand times, just clearing the area.”

Something that shouldn’t be too much work. The grass and brush were a tad overgrown, but it could definitely be worse. There could be trees and boulders littering the clearing. It was part of the reason she had chosen the location in the first place.

Finding the spot hadn’t been that easy. While the Infinite Courtyard was grossly misnamed, it still covered a fairly large space. Roughly ten square miles according to Zoe. Enough that the entirety of Brakket city could fit within and still have space left over. Eva had wandered around, picking the fifth spot she had come across that looked even mildly usable.

There might be better areas. In fact, there were almost definitely better areas. It was hard to imagine there weren’t any given the size. But they couldn’t be anywhere too close to the school, or near any paths leading to the handful of buildings that had been built out in the courtyard. Not to mention, Eva didn’t really want to spend ages just wandering aimlessly about.

“We should really talk to Zoe,” Juliana said. “I mean, bringing a Power to Earth? I’ll admit, I don’t know much about the Powers. But, that can’t be a good thing. They’re in their own planes of existence for a reason.”

Eva just sighed. Explaining things a hundred times got annoying by the second time. For some reason, she felt like she would be explaining things a hundred more times before the ritual was complete. They did have to bring other people in at some point, after all. More demons and more humans were needed.

“Like I said, Zagan’s theory is that Life is bringing Void and all of Hell over into the mortal plane. Probably destructively. This ritual should only grab the Power.”

“So says Vektul,” Juliana said. “This guy just shows up out of nowhere and you’re going to trust him?” She paused for just a moment, turning to the demon in question before adding, “No offense.”

Vektul just tilted his head to one side.

“But you’re supposed to be in the center of this circle. Arachne too. How do you know it isn’t going to do something terrible to you? You should at least have Zoe look over it. Catherine too. You said she was good with rituals, right?”

That was something that Eva actually had been considering. They would need to bring in more demons before the ritual actually started. Catherine was not only good at working on and developing rituals, but she was also a demon that Eva knew. Just because the doll hadn’t come back to kill off the rest of the demons did not mean that they were good, trustworthy, and not about to stab Eva in the back.

But Catherine had her own interests and designs. She was currently picking out demons for her upcoming ritual. While Eva had offered again, Catherine still hadn’t decided on what she wanted to do. And if she wanted one of the other demons around Brakket, she had to pick them while they were still around. Especially those who might become bound familiars.

They might not be around by the time she performed her next ritual.

“I might,” Eva said, voicing her thoughts aloud. “But not today. We need to clear out brush and grass from here to about halfway across the clearing,” she said with a gesture of her hand. It wasn’t a very useful gesture. Pointing at this distance wasn’t very precise.

“Preferably with as little burning as possible. I’d rather not have a column of smoke pointing out our location for everybody to find.”

“So I’m doing most of the work,” Juliana said with a sigh. “Great.”

“Well, I do recall saving your life. Wasn’t going to force you or anything, but consider it a nice way to pay me back.”

Juliana craned her neck, looking up to the sky. “How would smoke even look from outside?” she said after a moment. “I mean, would someone sitting on the dormitory roof see a great black plume that appeared to come from the whole courtyard or would it be a thin streak, barely visible?”

Eva shrugged.

Space manipulating wards were some of the most complex bits of magic that were possible, according to Professor Lepus. Wards that Brakket Academy made liberal use of in both the main building and the dormitories. Apparently that same professor not only created the wards when the school was first built several decades ago but still maintained all of the wards to this day.

All without looking a day over twenty.

Eva had considered asking her about it, but eventually just shrugged her shoulders and assumed ‘magic’ to be the answer.

“But don’t worry. I’ll help out as well.”

— — —

Zoe let out a long sigh. “For the last time, I didn’t even come close to dying.”

In contrast to her own morose exasperation, Zoe got a fanged grin in return. Hands on her hips, Serena spun around, walking a few steps away.

“Zoe, Zoe, Zoe. Wayne told me you know? You would have been a crispy corpse without him.”

“He exaggerates. I was fully prepared to escape.”

“But you didn’t. Wayne had to save you and you know it.”

Again, Zoe sighed. Arguing with the vampire was just not something that could be done. “Serena, what are you doing here? And how did you get here?”

Pausing, Zoe glanced out the window. Night had fallen a mere ten minutes ago. It still wasn’t completely dark. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that the sun had dipped below the horizon ten minutes ago. About a minute later, Serena had waltzed into her office.

She should have been back in Michigan. A bit far to travel in the span of sixty seconds. At least, a bit far for Serena to travel.

“I can’t imagine Wayne would have brought you here,” Zoe finished, looking back to Serena.

“But he did!” She spun back around, boring her eyes into Zoe. “His sister can take care of herself. She doesn’t need me babysitting her at all hours of the day. And if you two are going to get nearly killed every few months, I should be here. Somebody has to protect you. And I don’t sleep—at nights—so I can hover creepily over your beds and ensure nothing disturbs you.”

Zoe rolled her eyes, shaking her head.

Ylva had essentially performed that task for the last several months.

Serena spun back around, walking through Zoe’s office. A stack of ungraded papers caught her attention. She skipped over and started thumbing through the top few, pausing every now and again to read some of the text.

“So he just brought you over?”

“Well, there was a bit more arguing. As I told him, I’m not some pet to be chained up. I do as he asks because of respect and friendship. Also because your company is far more enjoyable than that of my brethren kin.”

“I hope you didn’t threaten him.”

“Of course not. Friends don’t threaten each other. I merely suggested that I would be making my way here anyway. The long and laborious task of crossing several state lines would be dangerous to only myself. Well, myself and whatever I was traveling with. I might have mentioned that his car might not survive the journey.”

Deciding to ignore the fact that she had threatened him, Zoe sunk down into her office chair.

“Well, I hate to break it to you, but there isn’t anywhere for you to stay.” She waved her hand towards the couch in her office. A small case full of clothing had been shoved underneath while a few of her teaching suits hung off a rack overhead. “I’ve been sleeping there almost every night.”

Serena paused her rifling through the papers, looking up to Zoe with a frown on her face. “Wayne doesn’t let you stay with him?”

“I spent a few nights with him, and I’m sure I could say longer should I ask.”

“Then–”

“I am not a little girl anymore. I prefer to live on my own.”

Though, she had been living with Ylva, Alicia, and Nel since being kicked out of the apartment, and next to them before that. But they were more like roommates than anything else. It was somewhat like being back in school dorms.

“Besides, its only temporary.”

“Moving into the dorms?”

“I– How did you know?”

“Even in a housing market as poor as this city’s, buying a house isn’t a thing you can do lightly. Burning one house down, being kicked out of your apartment for vandalism, and blowing up another house? I doubt that any insurer will cover you. Which means somewhere free or exceptionally cheap.” Serena dropped one of the essays onto the center of the desk.

Eva, read the simple print at the top. No last name. One of the longer essays in the stack. Then again, it was on the topic of demons. Not something Zoe usually included in her curriculum. With all their new guests around the school, she had thought that assigning a research paper on the subject wouldn’t be the worst idea.

“Prisons just don’t seem your style.”

“You’re right, but your deduction is off. The apartment and second house were both owned by or, in the apartment’s case, paid for by the school. Both were something of bribes to keep me in my teaching position. Anderson is not as willing to pay for my housing as Martina was.

“I could buy a smaller home. I’ve saved up enough. Wouldn’t even need a loan. But you are right. I don’t really want to talk to insurers. More, I’d rather not have another house destroyed in another six months.” Zoe sighed. Again. “If, in six months, the dorms have become uninhabitable for some reason, I’ll probably just take Eva up on her offer to live at the prison.”

Serena hummed a few times before walking over to the window. She took a moment, just staring out at the black surface that now made up most of the ground between the dormitory buildings.

After Genoa had taken down her walls, Eva went around smoothing the place out. There were still no patterns in it. Just a smooth sheet of glass-like material that Zoe worried might become too slick once the winter weather started up in force. On her suggestion, Eva had added a slight slope and channels for water to run down, as the crystallized blood was otherwise nonporous. It wouldn’t help with anything that stayed frozen, but would get the water off the platform.

Assuming they could remove the ice, magically or through mundane salt, it shouldn’t be much of a problem.

Serena’s interest with the world outside the window gave Zoe a moment to tidy up her desk. Papers which had formerly been in a neat stack awaiting reading and grading had been strewn about into a disorganized mess. It was a good thing that she kept her desk neat. With only one other stack of papers, one that Serena had barely touched, it wasn’t hard to put everything back in its proper place.

Whoever said that vampires had an obsession with order and counting had never met a real one.

“Wayne said that new students will be arriving soon.”

“The top ten students of the top four North American schools. Here to show off what they have learned.”

“How many are going to be demons, vampires, dragonkin, necromancers, or half-fae?”

“I would say hopefully none. We have enough excitement as is. However, the Nod Complex has been invited. I know at least a dryad will be arriving with them.”

“Yet a bunch of humans are expected to compete with demons?”

“Mr. Anderson,” Zoe said through pursed lips, “hopes to show off alternate methods of utilizing magic. A protest, if you will, against what he feels is a society stagnating by restricting itself to thaumaturgy.”

“Sounds like cheating to me.”

Zoe kept her mouth shut. The same thought had occurred to her. But it didn’t really matter. He would be getting the school’s name mentioned alongside the names of actually reputable schools. For the next school year, they might not have to go around, scrounging for students. Some might actually apply willingly.

“Who is running the betting pool on some disaster happening while the other schools are here?”

Zoe blinked in confusion. “I’m… What?”

“Figures you wouldn’t know,” Serena said, turning back to the window. “But somebody has to be gambling over this. Maybe I’ll try to sniff them out.” After a brief moment, she shook her head. “Though I don’t know why. Probably terrible odds on something happening and I’m certainly not betting against.”

Leaving her chair and walking around her desk, Zoe approached the vampire at the window with a long sigh. The fourth in seemingly as many minutes.

“Yeah,” she said, resting her forehead against the cool glass. “I wouldn’t bet against it either.”

<– Back | Index | Next –>

>>Author’s Note 008<<


008.026

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“This is a disaster.”

Eva took her eyes off Arachne for the first time since the hunter died and the doll ran off. She had plugged every injury that was bleeding, either stopping the blood completely or bridging the gap between veins with solidified blood. Of course, apart from patching them up a little bit, Eva couldn’t do all that much to fix Arachne’s internal organs.

Then again, Eva wasn’t sure how much they mattered. Her brain and heart tube were still intact. So the important parts were alright. But her stomach had a gaping hole in it. Eva had never seen Arachne eat, so it probably wasn’t a huge deal, but having whole organs had to be better than damaged ones.

However, the demon seemed to be alright at the moment. Not in danger of dying at least.

More importantly, a certain someone was walking towards them.

Governor—or Dean Anderson walked across the lake of blood. Though, Eva just about started laughing as she watched him.

He, like most of Brakket Academy’s staff, wore a suit. In order to keep the suit clean, he was walking while hiking up his trousers. More than that, he was tiptoeing across, trying to keep his shoes up and out of the liquid as much as possible. With his hands on his legs and his tiptoeing, the way he walked was almost more of a waddle than anything.

Stopping at the damaged fountain not far from Eva, he lifted one foot up on the ledge before releasing the leg of his trousers. He took hold of a small bit of rubble with his now freed hand, turning it over.

One side was obviously brick. The same material that made up most of the courtyard. As he turned it over, it glinted in the sun. The opposite side was a smooth and shiny glass surface.

The basin of the fountain had been destroyed by the doll. However, now that Eva was actually looking at it, the actual fountain itself was still intact. Functional, even. It spewed liquid out the top.

Black liquid.

Eva couldn’t be sure if she had turned the water to blood or if the damaged basin had let in enough blood to stain the water. Either way, she actually somewhat liked the effect.

And if it stayed like that—if Anderson didn’t clean it out, it could be a handy supply of blood in case the school was attacked again. It wouldn’t last. Open air preservation of blood was difficult. Her vials kept it nice and fresh for a good amount of time, but the fountain would be unusable after a few days. So not a real solution.

Fun to think about though.

After a moment of examining the rock, he set it down carefully so as to not splash the pool of blood. Hiking up his pants again, he started waddling towards Eva and Arachne.

“This,” he said as he got closer, “is a disaster.”

“I heard you the first time.”

Eva narrowed her eyes, waiting for Anderson to start laying blame at her feet for the mess the courtyard was in.

It wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t Arachne’s fault either. If anything, they had saved the school from far worse damage. Not to mention all the demons that the hunters would likely have torn through.

While the demons were demons without a doubt, they weren’t… too scary. From watching them since they arrived, Eva got the distinct impression that all of them were relatively young. They grew excited about things that Eva couldn’t even imagine demons like Catherine or Arachne blinking an eye at. And they socialized. Perhaps not the way a human would, but they still seemed almost eager to be around people.

Well, except for Srey. Eva had a feeling that his particular abilities made him far more paranoid than the rest of the demons.

They, as a group, had dispatched hunters before arriving. Eva couldn’t guess how dangerous those hunters had been.

Eva glanced over, staring at the remains of the hunter she had just killed. Given how much trouble he had given Arachne, Genoa, the doll, and herself, she was willing to assume that he was a step above the hunters that the demons had fought before their arrival.

Of course, had they not cowered away from the doll, the fight might have ended with far less difficulty.

Or they might have all died.

Hard to tell. However, should anyone ask, Eva was going to claim that she had saved all of them.

“We need to clean this up,” he said, interrupting Eva’s thoughts. “With your specialty lying in…” he trailed off, glancing at the blood on the floor, “all of this, might I ask for more of your help getting rid of it?”

She blinked, not quite expecting that. She had been expecting something like, ‘how could you have let this happen? Why did you destroy half the plaza? Your blood is everywhere!’ To which she would have mentioned something about not seeing Anderson anywhere around, helping out.

“The representatives from other schools are arriving next weekend. I need this place presentable.” Dropping his pant legs, he reached out and touched the web wall. After a sigh, he turned to face the giant earthen wall that had risen up around the Rickenbacker. “What am I going to do,” he mumbled.

Eva bit her lip. Now she was actually feeling a little sorry for the man. Not guilty, just sorry. He wasn’t blaming her and had even asked for her help.

“I could get rid of the blood,” she said slowly. With her control over it, that shouldn’t be a problem. Of course, how was the big question. She didn’t have anywhere to store this much blood. Leaving it out would render it useless soon enough. She supposed that she could clap her hands and be rid of most of it instantly, taking care not to kill herself, Arachne, or Anderson.

“But the ground beneath is quite a mess as well,” she continued part of her thoughts aloud. Blowing it up would only make that worse. “Especially where the sky crack hit. Maybe…”

Eva started to smile as a thought occurred to her.

The surface of the blood was perfectly still. Smooth and glass-like. It covered almost the entire courtyard between the dormitories. With a thought, she spread some of the blood out, evening the distance with the fountain as the main center point.

Starting at her feet, Eva hardened the blood. It crystallized, becoming as solid as the claws she had used against the hunter. The crystal portion crawled across the ground, growing larger and larger until the entirety of the blood had solidified into a smooth surface.

Eva grinned. It resembled obsidian. Black glass. She doubted there was anything like it in the world. Even if a solid chunk of obsidian existed at this size, this was made of demon blood. Which, in her opinion, was much better.

“Looks nice, right?” she said, turning towards Anderson. “I can’t do anything about the stone pillars. Genoa could probably…”

Anderson was looking around the landscape with a look a horror on his face. Though that horror was slowly receding to a more thoughtful expression as he crossed an arm over his chest and brought the other up to his chin.

Eva barely paid attention to him beyond that cursory glance. Apart from herself, Arachne, Anderson, and a certain hunter’s legs, the courtyard was empty. Nobody had emerged from either dormitory. Something that would be difficult for most people inside the Rickenbacker given the giant earthen shield blocking the entire front.

With the fight over, she had expected Genoa to have emerged at least.

But there weren’t any windows in the earthen shield. No way for Genoa to know that the fighting had ended. Something that Eva felt was a huge oversight.

What if things had gone poorly?

What if the hunter had circled around to enter the building through another entrance? Or if he had gone towards the Gillet?

Blocking herself off completely was simply irresponsible. More importantly, it wasn’t something Eva believed Genoa would do.

With a worry building in her mind, Eva started to walk away.

“Wait,” Anderson said, finally letting his pants down and getting off the tips of his toes. There were small indents where he had been standing. Things Eva could fix later, along with the spots where Arachne and the remains of the hunter were. “Where are you going?”

“Genoa isn’t here,” Eva said, not stopping. “She might be in trouble.”

“I’m coming with you,” Arachne said, trying to get on her feet.

This time, Eva did stop. She turned with a shake of her head. “You focus on getting better.”

Turns out that she needn’t have stopped. Arachne wobbled on her feet, trying to maintain balance. A futile effort. She overcorrected and fell flat on her face with a growl.

“Mr. Anderson, ensure Arachne comes to no more harm and I’ll help you do whatever you want with this,” Eva said, waving her hand around the plaza.

Without waiting for a response, she turned and ran towards the Rickenbacker.

Not directly towards it, of course. She couldn’t phase through the stone wall. Neither was her earth magic up to taking it down. But there should be doors around the sides. The webbed net posed no obstacle to her blinking past it.

There was a door on the side of the building. A good distance away. Windows were much closer. Eva blinked straight into an occupied hallway. Eva ignored the students—possibly first years judging by their shorter heights, wide-open eyes, and screams as they ran back into their rooms—choosing to run straight for the stairwell she had last seen Genoa in.

She skidded to a stop on the second floor landing, just in front of the large window they had all been looking out from earlier.

The good news was that Genoa was still there. Unfortunately, she wasn’t standing.

Genoa had collapsed with her back against the window. Her head had dropped to her chest with her eyes closed. However, she was breathing. Her heart was beating. Without any obvious injuries, Eva had to assume that she had simply pushed herself too much. Between managing that golem and creating the wall that obscured the window, it wasn’t hard to guess how.

“Genoa?” Eva asked in a quiet voice from several paces away. She didn’t want to startle the former mage-knight. She was liable to get her head chopped off thanks to Genoa’s instincts and reflexes.

Sure enough, that single word was enough for Genoa to snap both her eyes open and her focus up. She held her hand out, keeping the tip of her dagger steady as her eyes focused on Eva.

“Eva,” she said, dropping her arm back to her side. “I see you’re alive.”

“I am. The hunter in the courtyard isn’t doing nearly as well. The other hunter ran away. Again.”

With Genoa’s focus down and the woman recognizing her, Eva finally felt safe to approach a few more steps.

“We should get you to a nurse. I don’t want to explain to Juliana why her mother died of exhaustion.”

As soon as Eva was close enough, Genoa’s hand shot out again. This time, lacking her focus. Her fist gripped the front of Eva’s shirt before she had a chance to react.

“Where is Juliana?”

Eva winced at the harsh tone of voice. “She’s fine. I left her on the roof where we fought the other hunter. Not a scratch on her.”

“Alone?”

Wincing again, Eva nodded her head.

“You didn’t think the hunter might return?” Genoa pushed Eva back, releasing her shirt. “Go find her. Ensure she’s safe.”

“But you’re–”

“I can handle myself. Get out of here.”

With the glare Genoa was giving Eva, she didn’t try arguing again. As before, she ran up the stairs. She skipped over her hallway this time. The clothes and equipment she had on already would work just fine.

Now that she was running, she realized Genoa was right. Leaving Juliana alone was stupid. How could she have done such a thing? Even if the crippled hunter didn’t come back, she knew that other hunters were in the area. Someone might come along to check out what had happened with that second sky cracking.

Juliana was human, but would a hunter stop to ask? Probably not.

Eva reached the roof and immediately started blinking through the air. Having just done this, it wasn’t difficult to follow her path back. Thanks to Juliana having already destroyed all the shackles, navigating through the remaining wards wasn’t an issue.

She stopped on the first roof. Saija was still lying on her stomach with a slowly melting shard of ice sticking out of her back.

Eva paused in her rush to find Juliana. On one hand, Juliana could be in trouble.

On the other… Saija was looking pitiful. Very pitiful. And she had saved Eva from the first set of shackles, if only because she had delivered Juliana.

So Eva nudged the fallen succubus with the tip of her foot. “How are you doing?”

“Oh, just fine,” the succubus drawled without turning her head to face Eva. “This roof was so comfortable I thought I would just lie here a little longer.”

“In that case,” Eva said, starting to walk away.

“Wait! You can’t just leave me here! What if those hunters come back?”

“One is dead. The other hasn’t come back?”

Eva sighed. That was good news. If nobody had been around, Juliana should still be safe.

No longer in quite the rush, Eva knelt. Pressing one hand on Saija’s back, she gripped the icicle and yanked it out of her in a single twist of her hand.

Saija shouted out, clawing at the roof. “That hurts!”

“Oh quit being such a baby.”

Eva stood, inspecting the wound. She could block off the blood vessels and keep her from bleeding out, but it didn’t actually seem to be bleeding that much. Maybe the ice had helped close off the punctured veins or maybe that was just natural demonic healing at work.

Either way, Eva shrugged her shoulders.

“It missed your spine. You shouldn’t be paralyzed or anything.”

“I hurt when I try to move.”

“Well, just sit tight here then. I’ll be back as soon as I’ve found Juliana.”

The succubus started to protest, but Eva ignored it as she walked away. Following her path across the rooftops, Eva reached the partially destroyed, partially glassed building.

The roof was empty. No Juliana. No metal-encased idol.

But that wasn’t surprising. Nothing to worry about. Juliana wouldn’t have wanted to stick around on an unstable roof. She would have gone down inside, maybe even down to street level.

“Juliana!” Eva called out as she leaned over the edge of the roof.

No Juliana down on the street. No answer either. She must be inside.

Eva dropped down into the main building, landing roughly where she and Juliana had landed after the crack in the sky. Landing elsewhere could be dangerous. In fact, moving through the building could be dangerous. The kind of dangerous that wound up with her stuck in shackles.

And if Juliana was in trouble, it might be some time before someone came along to free her. A potentially deadly situation should the shackles drain her as the other shackles tried to do to her.

“Juliana,” Eva called out again.

This time, she actually heard something in response. Nothing clear. A mumbled noise coming from somewhere below.

The staircase leading up to the roof had fallen with the blast. The way down from whatever floor Eva was on looked more or less intact.

Unfortunately, she spotted several demon shackles just waiting for some poor demon to try to walk up it without glancing above them. They were much easier to notice while facing the stairwell from the wrong direction. However, they spoke of just how on guard she would have to be while walking through the building. Or any of the buildings around.

If she had her cellphone on her, she might have called up Irene to see if she could get a human walking her through the area. At the very least, Irene should be able to scuff up the shackles enough to break them.

Not a choice at the moment, sadly.

Eva overpowered a fireball, throwing it right at the shackle before it exploded. When it did go off, it took most of the ceiling with it.

Surprising, given the difficulty in destroying the shackles within the apartment building. Perhaps they hadn’t had time to make them difficult to remove. Though they had managed to set up all the other wards that littered the rooftops.

“Oh well,” Eva mumbled to herself. “No complaints here.”

She carefully descended the staircase, checking every nook and cranny for more shackles. Even underneath the handrail and the vertical slat on each stair. Rubble from the ceiling of the stairs or the roof itself littered the landing, nearly causing her to miss another set of shackles.

This time, she tried a far less explosive fireball. Just enough to chip into the concrete platform and disrupt the shackles.

She made it all the way down to the first floor.

And promptly froze.

“Am I glad to see you,” Juliana said.

Eva wasn’t sure what to say in response.

A half-sphere of water sat in front of her. Somewhat like an above-ground swimming pool. Except there were no walls. The water was entirely held in by magic.

Wards.

Juliana stood inside it, feet about an arm’s length away from the ground, standing on a pillar of metal. Her pillar let her stick out from her chest up, but she had clearly fallen in at least once. She was soaked from head to toe.

Obviously, given her toes were underwater.

The pillar was probably made of her armor; she was only wearing her regular clothes at the moment. The only metal on her was her ring foci and Ylva’s black band.

The metal-encased idol was lying on the floor right next to the metal pillar.

Eva reached out, about to touch the bubble of water.

“Don’t!”

Juliana’s shout had her pull her hand back, clutching it to her chest.

“What if you got stuck in here? How would we get out then?”

“I’m just confused as to how you managed to fall into this trap?”

In slow motion because of the water, Juliana placed a hand on her hip. “It wasn’t full of water when I walked in. I didn’t see a thing until I ran into an invisible wall. Then it started to fill with water.” She paused, lifting a hand out of the water. Her hand hit something about a foot over her head, roughly twice as high as the water level. “I’m glad somebody showed up before it finished filling. I was about to try summoning a demon.”

She pointed down at her feet. As she lifted one foot out of the way, Eva found a mostly formed summoning circle had been etched into the top of the pillar.

“Of course,” Juliana continued in a quieter mumble, “probably would have gotten an enigma which would have just killed me. Better than drowning though. Even if I got a demon, no room for shackles here.”

“Don’t worry about either. I’m going to get you out of there.”

An easy statement to make. Much harder to follow through with. Now she was wishing she had a phone to call up Professor Lepus. The warding professor should be able to tear it down in the time it took to snap her fingers.

“How fast has it been filling?”

“Fast enough that I’d rather get out now than later.”

“You didn’t think to call someone once you got trapped?”

Juliana pulled a cellphone out of her pocket. One long dead from the water.

“Was the first thing I thought of once I realized I was trapped. Unfortunately, the water was rushing in much faster then. Enough to knock me down.” She dropped the phone with a shrug. It sank down alongside the idol and her pillar. “I honestly thought I would drown before I even had a chance to form the summoning circle,” she said.

Faster before, but now the water was slowing? The ward is running out of magic. Or maybe not the ward but whatever is filling it with magic, Eva thought, slowly circling around the bubble.

She kept a careful eye out for any shackles as she moved.

Packing both the invisible wall and the water conjuring into the same ward wasn’t impossible. Difficult maybe. Especially for someone who had only been in the class as long as Eva. But probably difficult for others as well.

With the staggering amount of wards and shackles around the place, Eva couldn’t imagine that they would have gone with the more complicated and more time-consuming route of wrapping both effects up into a single spell. They would have built everything within the last hour or so, or people might have noticed. Two people did all that. Maybe a few more if they had recruited the hunters who were attacking Nel and Ylva.

They had to have made mistakes in their castings. Eva doubted that the water conjuration was supposed to have given time to escape.

“Maybe it will run out of magic soon,” Eva said, mostly to herself.

Apparently Juliana heard. “I’d rather not take that chance.”

“Right.”

Eva considered going back up the stairs and finding a decently sized bit of rebar and having Juliana smack it against the top of the shell for a while. But if the shell and the water were separate as Eva suspected, the shell could last for a very long time before running out of magic enough to release Juliana.

She would have to try deconstructing the ward.

It was simple in theory. Being able to tear down their own thaumaturgical wards was one of the first things taught. Otherwise the teacher would have to go around and dispel everybody’s practice wards every single time they went into class.

Professor Lepus had warned them never to tear down other people’s wards. It was possible to build traps into the things that activated upon attempts to break them. From simple things such as alarms to full on explosions.

But in the hunters’ haste to erect these defenses, would they have put more time and effort into trapping them?

Eva reached out again, keeping her hand hovering just above the bubble. She channeled her magic through her fingers as if she were conjuring a fireball. Instead of flames, she forced the magic into the shell.

All while focusing on the level of the water.

The water did not significantly rise from her added magic.

“Excellent.” She could toy around for a moment without accidentally drowning Juliana.

Forcing her magic into the bubble again, Eva waited just a moment before yanking it back. Much like removing excess hair with a strip of hot wax paper. Or so went the example Professor Lepus had used; Eva had never had a bikini wax in her life. They sounded painful.

Also, since about a half an hour ago, entirely unnecessary given her lack of hair.

Eva held her breath, waiting and watching.

No explosions. She was taking that as a good sign.

Trying again and a third time, Eva smiled.

A leak had formed in the shell.

“I see the water going out,” Juliana said slowly, “but it’s up to my shoulders now.” Her voice had just a tinge of panic in it. “And still rising. I can make my pedestal bigger, but not by much.”

Eva grit her teeth. Is it trapped then? Or worse, is it intended to cause slow and painful drowning? These hunters were terrible, if so. Still terrible anyway, but worse. Absolutely sadistic.

“Just hold on a minute,” Eva said, pouring more and more magic into the shell.

She tore it all away, peeling it back. More cracks were forming. More water escaping.

“My chin, Eva.”

As she had said she could do, Juliana’s pillar stretched, growing slightly narrower at the top. The water level moved from her chin back to her shoulders as her head bumped into the top of the ward.

“Working as fast as I can,” Eva said, continuing to rip apart the shell.

“Eva…”

“When this thing shatters, try not to get washed into another ward.”

“Gee, okay. That’s first on my priority list at the moment!”

The water had risen back to her chin despite the additional cracks in the shell.

“If you get washed into another one, I’ll have to do this all over again. And maybe it will be fire instead of water.”

Juliana grimaced without speaking. She had to tilt her head back to try to keep her mouth above the water line.

As she continued ripping apart the ward, Eva considered something. It might not have been designed to speed up because she was ripping apart the barrier. The fact of the matter was that the shell was in the shape of a sphere. Beyond the half-way point, for every inch the water level rose, less water would need to exist to fill the next inch.

That didn’t really help much, but at least she knew that she wasn’t fueling some trap.

Feeding in enough of her magic to detonate several of her most explosive fireballs, Eva tore it away in a single jerk of her hands.

It started around the middle. Water exploded outwards in a ring. The rest of the water held its shape for just a moment. All at once, that sphere failed. The ring traveled upwards and downwards, letting the water collapse in on itself as it rushed to fill the rest of the first floor.

It was enough water to almost knock Eva off her feet.

Juliana, being in the water, did exactly as Eva had asked her not to and started to head towards where she knew another ward was waiting.

Eva snapped a hand out, grabbing Juliana’s arm. Her other hand wrapped around Juliana’s waist.

As soon as her arms were around Juliana, Eva stopped fighting the water and let it sweep her backwards. The stairs were already clear of traps. She could fall towards them all she wanted.

Juliana coughed a few times, sputtering out a bit of water.

She didn’t speak.

Neither of them did. They just sat, soaked to the bone. Eva had her arms wrapped around Juliana while the other girl coughed every once in a while.

As the water settled—save for a weak fountain floating in the middle of the air where the bubble had been—Eva gently shoved Juliana off.

“Let’s not do that again, shall we?”

<– Back | Index | Next –>


008.025

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With a long guttural noise from the back of her throat, Arachne tried to sit up.

Eva slammed her foot down on Arachne’s shoulder despite the sword at her neck. The sudden move shouldn’t alarm the doll too much. In fact, pretty much nothing alarmed the doll. Throughout that entire fight with the hunter, Eva hadn’t noticed a single recognizable emotion cross her face.

And even with a sword at her neck, Eva couldn’t allow Arachne to move. The sword had come perilously close to cutting straight through her heart tube. Of course, she probably shouldn’t have kicked her down so hard, but the sword didn’t cut anything vital.

So long as Arachne didn’t move more, everything would be fine.

To that end, Eva kept her foot firmly planted on Arachne’s chest.

“Look,” Eva said, turning her head slightly to address the doll, “I’m not going anywhere. No need to be so touchy.”

The doll said nothing. Only half looking at her, Eva couldn’t get a very good picture of what the doll was doing. Even if she could, she doubted she would gain any insight from looking at her face. The term ‘doll’ was quite apt in her case.

As the silence continued, Eva slowly raised a hand. She used just the very tip of one finger to slide the blade off her shoulder. When she failed to encounter any resistance, Eva grew a little confidence. As soon as the blade wasn’t touching her, she twisted around and stepped onto the other side of Arachne to face the doll.

Of course, she didn’t take her foot off Arachne as she moved.

“While running around, I had some time to think. I think I’ve come up with something that might convince you to not send me to Hell or the Keeper.”

The doll remained where she was. Now that Eva was actually facing her, Eva found herself somewhat disturbed.

Blood hadn’t bothered Eva in years. The sight of it didn’t elicit any real feelings. Nor did the smell. Not fresh blood at least. The memories of Sawyer’s autopsies while she had been in his head were about where she drew the line in terms of body decomposition.

So it wasn’t the blood alone that made Eva take in a sharp breath.

It was the doll and how she just stood there, covered in blood, as if she didn’t even realize it. Her whole face was stained red, losing the alabaster look. Her hair as well. And her eyes… she obviously had them open when Eva had clapped her hands together. Larger bits of flesh hung off her body as well. A chunk of skin clung to a matted strand of hair.

Perhaps she did realize it. Without it factoring into her current mission, she just didn’t care.

Eva grimaced, remembering that she had her back turned while the hunter was busy exploding. She had definitely felt some blood hit her—and now that she was looking at herself with her blood sight, her worries were confirmed.

She definitely needed a shower.

Shaking her head and clearing her throat in an attempt to take her mind off the matter, Eva moved on with her explanation.

“Ylva killed me.”

The doll just continued staring.

Perhaps it wasn’t the best explanation. Eva had more to elaborate upon it, but at the moment, Arachne was letting out an even deeper growl as she struggled to get up.

Which was exactly why she had never told Arachne about that little incident. She knew that the demon would become agitated. Eva did not want Arachne trying to fight Ylva.

Eva lifted her foot and slammed it down. A few cracks spread through her carapace.

“After this incident you’re concerned about,” Eva said as Arachne settled down, “the one where I took a beacon from Hell, Ylva killed me. It was an experiment. One I was somewhat displeased to be the subject of. However, no portal to Hell opened to draw me back in. If I’m not demonic enough for Void to draw me in, I must not be demonic enough to have the Keeper’s laws applied to me.

“That combined with my earlier argument about realizing my mistake and destroying the beacon should be enough to absolve me.”

Or so Eva was hoping.

“She’s out in the city,” Eva added after a moment. “You can even ask her if you don’t believe me.”

Throughout the entire time Eva spoke, the doll had just stood there. Her sword was not up and at the ready, but hovering off to the side. Her facial expression never changed from her impassive stare.

So Eva held her breath, waiting and hoping that the doll judged her innocent.

Though she did have something of a backup plan. Unlike Eva, the black pool of blood they were all standing in did not avoid the doll’s feet. It was all still under her control. While it might not have seeped up into her boots, a great deal had splashed around the doll just from walking. Much of it had joined up with and been contaminated by the hunter’s blood, but plenty more was still pure enough to work with.

Eva could distinctly tell the difference between the hunter’s blood and the demon blood. A clap of her hands and the doll should be crippled if not killed outright.

Hopefully, anyway. Before any of that, Eva would be blinking away to give herself some time to clap.

Just as Eva was thinking about good locations to blink to, the doll’s sword-arm shot straight up into the air. She didn’t have time to react before it came back down.

Eva winced, expecting to find herself split in two.

But the doll’s sword came down to the side, splattering a great deal of red blood into the pool of black.

In one swift motion, she slid it across the opening of her scabbard, stopping at the tip, and plunged it in.

With the doll’s sword put away, Eva breathed out her held breath.

Eva turned her attention to Arachne now that the doll had sheathed her sword. Ever since she had stomped on Arachne’s shoulder, she hadn’t tried to get up. That wasn’t to say that she was sitting still and content. Her fingers were scraping through the pool of blood as she clenched and unclenched her fists.

More, she had an almost constant low rumble coming from the back of her throat.

“Just sit still,” Eva said. “I’m obviously alive and fine. Ylva put me back together after killing me. And, thanks to her, I am no longer in danger of…”

Eva trailed off as she glanced back up at the doll.

Or where the doll had been standing. She wasn’t there now. It took Eva a moment to realize that the doll was walking away. And then, she only noticed that the doll was still in the area thanks to the ripples in the blood.

She watched for a moment as the doll approached the webbed fence, hopped straight over, and came down on the other side.

“Well, I think she has decided to let me go. Which is great news,” Eva said, looking back to Arachne.

“Ylva killed you,” Arachne snarled.

“And I’m still here. If you go off and attack Ylva, she’ll kill you. And maybe she’ll be mad enough to kill me. And if either of us die, I will be very upset,” Eva said, leaning over Arachne to better glower at the demon.

Arachne’s teeth clicked together. She somewhat shrunk in on herself. As much as she could with a sword through her chest, anyway.

Which just brought Eva’s attention back to how close it was to cutting into her heart tube.

“Now, let’s get that sword out of you.”

“My legs are still bleeding. I can feel it. They should have stopped by now.”

Eva blinked. Apart from her initial shock at seeing how dismembered Arachne was, she hadn’t paid all that much attention to Arachne’s legs. She lost them often enough that Eva never considered them all that big a deal. Just a measure of how dangerous whoever she was fighting might be.

But now that she was looking, she could see that Arachne was right. The stumps on her back were still bleeding, as was her chest where the sword had partially come out.

Most of it was beneath the surface of the black pool.

Which helped Eva immensely. She solidified some of the blood around each of Arachne’s major wounds and even a few of the minor cuts and cracks in her chitin that looked like they were leaking.

Now for the sword, Eva thought, reaching out for the hilt.

She stopped her hands just before touching the hilt. As with the idol, this sword could be trapped somehow. Or worse, made of the same metal that hurt demons when touched.

Eva pulled back, choosing instead to call up the surrounding blood. The blood swarmed around the sword, swallowing it up in an inky blackness. Eva solidified a large portion around the hilt. As added security, she solidified more blood in a handle that extended well beyond the original hilt.

Even with all the crystallized blood, Eva still only grazed her fingers along the surface.

Really, she was probably being paranoid. Arachne had part of the sword buried in her and had gripped the hilt to get it away from the hunter. Though injured, most of that looked to be because she had been stabbed. Unless there was some enchantment that caused the blade to turn on its wielder, Eva should be fine.

As nothing had killed her yet, Eva gripped the handle with both hands and hefted the sword up.

And just about stumbled forwards, coming far too close to dropping it back into Arachne for her tastes. Even using her legs to do most of the work for her didn’t help much. The sword had to weigh twice as much as Eva did.

She did get it up enough to clear Arachne. Despite the demon’s injured state, Arachne managed to slide out from under the hovering tip.

As soon as she was out of the way, Eva threw it back down, fully encasing the rest of the blade in crystalline blood drawn from the pool it had landed in.

“How,” Eva groaned between sucking in gasps of air, “did that hunter manage to lift that thing.”

Even when it fell, some of the hardened blood cracked. Eva had to spend a moment shoring it up and ensuring that it wasn’t going anywhere.

With a sigh, she finally turned to face Arachne. There were still a few spots where the sword had been that were bleeding, so Eva fixed them up.

“How are you feeling?”

“Like I have a hole in my chest,” she groaned, sitting up properly. She paused, glancing downwards. “Oh. Look at that.”

Eva rolled her eyes. “You’re hilarious.” She took a deep breath and just sighed. Arachne was alright. “About Ylva… just let it go. Pretend nothing happened. She killed me only because I asked. It was all an experiment.”

Sure, she hadn’t explicitly asked to be killed, but if Arachne believed so, then all the better.

“Though,” Eva said before Arachne could do more than growl again, “Nel mentioned that they were fighting another group of hunters just a few minutes ago. I wonder how they’re doing.”

— — —

Nel shrieked as something flew right towards her. She ducked back behind her altar, letting it sail overhead. It bounced off a wall and…

Is that a grenade?

She scrambled around to the other side of the heavy marble, just barely making it with enough time to clamp her arms over her head.

An explosion sent her eardrums ringing. All the sounds of gunfire died off, replaced by a high-pitched whine. Shards of marble from the altar went flying through the air while the main bulk of it collapsed into where Nel had just been hiding.

The lack of gunfire was actually quite refreshing. Guns were noisy. Painfully so. Every time one of the hunters fired off a shotgun, she feared that she would never hear again. And not just because she was dead. The way it echoed in the small home burst her eardrums again and again.

Though, just because she couldn’t hear didn’t mean that the battle had stopped.

And, though her altar had saved her from the grenade, it was no longer protecting her from the flying bullets.

Marble dust exploded around Nel’s head as a bullet whizzed past her ear. She pinched her eyes shut, throwing herself back down as flat on the ground as she could possibly make herself.

Scrambling along the ground, Nel made it back to the safer side of her altar. Shrapnel and debris littered the small corner of the room. The wood floor had a hole in it at the main point of the explosion. One full of splinters that were just waiting to become slivers.

Nel pressed her back against the largest still intact chunk of marble and let out a breath. The ringing in her ears was slowly dying down, only to once again be replaced with the cracks of gun reports.

There had been five hunters to begin with. Two were little more than husks.

Nel took a quick glimpse of the area, making sure that none of the remaining hunters were circling around to get her.

A white lightning bolt crackled through the air. Alicia flung two more, but they both missed. The first hit the hunter that Ylva was stalking square in the back, sending him crashing to the floor.

He managed to roll on his back, bringing a shotgun around and leveling it at the skeletal form of Ylva.

The roof had partially collapsed thanks to one of the hunters and his fireballs. He had been the first to go. But the damage had been done and Ylva was out in the unobstructed sunlight. Her white dress was riddled with holes from the hunters’ bullets. However, with no skin or organs, it was nearly impossible to tell how injured she was. One of her ribs had broken off, but that was about it.

The hunter on his back unloaded three shotgun blasts straight into Ylva’s chest.

Not one of the shots gave her even the slightest pause. She reached down, brushing her skeletal fingertips across the hunter’s cheeks.

Screaming, the hunter writhed on the ground as black veins spread out from the touch. Within a few seconds, his screams died out and the hunter went still. As with the other dead hunters, it was as if all the water in his body had dried up, turning him into a sort of mummified husk.

“Hey Dean?”

Nel turned her attention to one of the remaining hunters. A younger man with somewhat long brown hair.

“Little busy at the moment Sammy,” the other one—shorter and with a crew cut—said. He leaned around the corner, brandishing a heavy pistol.

Nel clamped her hands over her ears. Despite that, she still heard the crack as if it were right next to her head.

Ylva’s head snapped to the side. The bullet had been traveling too fast to see, but a bullet-sized hole appeared in the side of Ylva’s skull. Only one side. It didn’t make it out the other.

Snapping her head back upright, she lifted a hand to just under her jaw. A single silver bullet fell down into her waiting palm. She looked it over for a moment before dropping it to the floor. Her skull swiveled over to face the hunter with the pistol.

“I don’t think this is a succubus,” the taller hunter said.

The hunter with a pistol ducked back behind a broken wall just in time to avoid a lightning bolt from Alicia. “You think? What gave you that idea? Was it the turning into a skeleton? Or maybe the fact that it didn’t die with a bullet to the skull. Find a way to kill it.”

“Just keep it off me,” the first said, opening a small leather-bound book. “I’m going to try to banish it.”

Alicia snarled upon hearing that. Emerging from her cover, she threw lightning bolt after lightning bolt at the wall the taller hunter was using for cover. With every step closer, the lightning grew more intense than the last bolt until it was almost blinding to look at even through Nel’s glimpsing.

The hunter with the pistol didn’t seem too concerned. He leaned around the corner, aimed, and fired all before Nel could even think to do anything.

Alicia crumpled to the ground, blood leaking from a hole in her own skull.

Her shield should have protected her. Nel saw it. It flashed for the barest moment in Nel’s glimpse. Nel had never heard of an enchanted bullet that could penetrate an Elysium Order shield with only a single shot. But then, perhaps Alicia hadn’t been maintaining her shield properly. Her fellow former nun did not display the best mental discipline. Something that had only been getting worse as time went on.

With her real eyes, Nel started to see ice crystals forming from her breath. She started shivering as the cold set in, penetrating straight to her core.

“I think you just pissed it off!”

Ylva marched towards the pistol wielding hunter, ignoring shot after shot even as parts of her body were pulverized by the bullets. Even while fighting with the other hunters, Ylva had a grace about her. A certain regal bearing that she managed to maintain no matter the situation.

That regality was gone. Her footfalls were heavy and angry. Her hands clenched into fists. The teeth in her fleshless jaw ground together.

Just outside her reach, the hunter decided he had stuck around long enough. He turned to run.

And found himself facing the bright pinpricks in the back of Ylva’s skull.

She reached forward, gripping his neck. As with all the other hunters, black veins started spreading from her touch. Unlike the others, the veins spread slowly. They crept from her fingers, lingering in spots before moving on.

Nel stopped watching. She stared at her feet with her hands clamped over her ears, trying to shut out the noises the hunter was making. She had thought that she had seen Ylva angry before. How wrong that was. Nel now believed that she had never seen Ylva more than mildly irritated. With a shudder, Nel considered just how grateful she was to be Ylva’s servant and not her enemy.

When she finally worked up the courage to look again, she found nothing but dust around Ylva’s feet.

And an unmoving Ylva.

The taller hunter had his hand thrust outwards towards Ylva with a look of abject anger tormenting his otherwise pretty face. His lips moved, murmuring something.

He was trying to banish her.

Judging by her immobility, he was succeeding.

Nel jumped up. She couldn’t fight, but she could throw a lightning bolt or two. Enough to distract him and let Ylva free to take him out.

But before she could properly connect to the Source, the hunter’s head fell from his neck.

His body stayed upright for just a moment before tottering to the ground.

A woman covered from head to toe in blood stood just behind him, not even tracking his falling corpse with her eyes. She flicked her sword to one side before sheathing it.

“I have an inquiry,” she said, stepping over the body towards Ylva.

Though she was obviously not frozen anymore, Ylva stood still, watching the sword-wielder approach.

“The individual known as ‘Eva’ claims to have been killed by you.”

“Her claim is accurate.”

“No portal to the Void opened beneath her corpse?”

“Your statement is accurate.”

“I see.”

The two stood, staring at each other for another minute. Neither said another word. Even still, as if by some agreement, both started moving at once. The sword-wielder turned on her heel, stepped over the body, and walked out through a hole in the house.

Ylva turned to face the crumpled form of Alicia.

Her strides still heavy though lacking their anger, she approached the body. Half-way there, she stepped out of the direct sunlight and into a portion of the house that still had a roof overhead. Her flesh returned, appearing on her body as if nothing had happened. Though her bones had been damaged and even broken in places, not a single blemish marred her skin.

The only evidence of a battle was her long dress and the tatters the bullets had made of it.

She stopped a foot away, standing and staring.

With the danger passed, Nel stepped out from behind the slab of marble. She wasn’t quite sure what to do. Comfort Ylva?

She wouldn’t know where to begin in doing such a thing.

For the time being, she merely stepped up beside Ylva.

Nel couldn’t say that she ever really liked the other nun. Quite the opposite, in fact. Nel frequently felt an uncomfortable sensation on the back of her neck only to turn and notice Alicia staring at her. It gave her the creeps. And after Eva had mentioned how Ylva recruited the nun, that creepy feeling only grew. She knew Eva felt the same. They had both worried that she might betray Ylva.

Yet here she lay, having given her life in an attempt to stop Ylva from being banished. All while Nel cowered behind cover.

Ylva’s face was set in stone. Yet there was a certain sorrow behind her eyes. Something Nel hadn’t ever seen before despite all the time she spent around the demon.

She couldn’t keep silent any longer.

“Can you not bring her back?”

“No.” Ylva’s voice came out heavy and full of conviction. Not the voice she occasionally used when she wanted to make an impression. That voice tended to echo everywhere and force people to their knees. Just one with a hint more emotion than she normally expressed.

Nel shook her head, not quite understanding. Was she not a servant of Death? Did she not have certain powers over death?

“But you killed Eva. She’s still around.”

“None came to collect Eva. She is unwanted by all. Perhaps in time, Void will stake a claim on her being. Even had a reaper come, We may have been able to stake Our own claim. Yet We did not kill Ali. She is not Ours to restore.”

Ylva reached over, tapping Nel in the center of her forehead.

Nel blinked as a rush of cold passed through her body. Not the uncomfortable sort of cold she had felt when Alicia had been shot. Just a chill. It lasted a mere instant.

When she opened her eyes from her blink, she could see.

The world had become muted. Blood from the hunters had turned grey. The pictures on the walls, grey. Everything she could see had been drained of color.

Yet Nel didn’t waste her time looking around.

An ethereal Alicia stood just in front of her. Her face was devoid of all expression. No staring at her own corpse, no longing for Ylva. Just a vacuous gaze that stared off to one side.

Another being stood nearby. A kindly old man stood just over the beheaded hunter’s corpse. Despite his somewhat disturbing location, Nel didn’t get any worrisome feelings about him. If anything, she found him pleasing to look at.

With his lightly wrinkled face, she thought that he might be the kind of person that might be found in a park, reading a book under the warm sun. While Alicia looked like a ghost, the man was far more solid. Nel could almost see through him, but at the same time, she felt as if she might bump into him were they to touch.

He drifted forward. Though his feet moved in proper steps, his body moved so smoothly that it was almost as if he were gliding. As soon as he reached Alicia, he reached out, tapping her on the shoulder.

Alicia’s face came alive. First, her initial snarl. The exact same expression she had on while marching after the hunter. That disappeared in an instant, replaced with open-mouthed confusion. She stared at Ylva first, then Nel.

Then down to her own body.

Nel clamped her jaw shut, not trusting herself to not make a noise. The anguish on Alicia’s face, the despair. It was enough to make Nel want to cry. As it was, her stomach was churning.

“Thank you, Ali, for your service.”

The former nun’s head snapped up to Ylva. Her eyes looked wet, full of tears. But not a single drop made it out. She gave a shallow nod of her head.

The old man spoke. At least, Nel assumed he was speaking. His mouth was moving and Alicia had turned as if listening. However, Nel couldn’t hear a thing. She watched as Alicia opened her mouth as if speaking in response before the old man started talking again.

After they had spoken, the old man turned to Ylva. He gave her an almost imperceptible nod of his head. One which Ylva returned.

He took Alicia by the hand. Both vanished in a flash of white light.

Nel blinked, looking around. They were well and truly gone.

“Humans have hourglasses,” Ylva said. “We know rumors of such have been distributed throughout the mortal realm. Not literally true, but a decent metaphor. Getting the hourglasses to turn around is difficult. Though not truly a crime. Attempting to freeze the sand in place through idols of gold is what Death finds most offensive. However, sometimes sand can be added. Sometimes, taken away. Alicia… was taken before her sand had run its course. Her hourglass had cracked, to continue the metaphor.”

Turning away from Alicia’s corpse, Ylva glanced down. She pulled at her dress, looking it over with a deep frown on her face. After a moment, she released the fabric.

“Alicia may prove worthy. A reaper. Maybe a valkyrie. Should she prove worthy, I may put in a request to have her assigned to me.”

Nel didn’t say anything. She was relatively certain that she should never have seen what Ylva just showed her. The churn in her stomach was still there. Worse now, with what Ylva had said.

She opened her mouth.

How long is left in my hourglass?

She almost asked. Came so close to spilling the words.

But she was afraid. Ylva would answer. She would speak honestly and probably bluntly at that.

Nel shook her head, narrowing her eyes. She latched onto Ylva’s other words.

“H-How do I become worthy?”

— — —

“Eh, I’m sure she’s fine,” Eva said with a shrug.

<– Back | Index | Next –>

Author’s Note: Specter chapter 2 up over on the other site.


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Eva dropped out of the sky, seething with her fists clenched tight as she grit her teeth together. Her final blink had carried her over the makeshift wall of the Brakket dormitory plaza.

The first thing she noticed were the arachnid legs scattered about. Arachne’s dismembered legs. Perhaps the source of the disturbing feeling.

Or so Eva thought until she spotted the rest of the demon, the hunter, and the doll.

The hunter’s curved sword was buried in Arachne’s stomach.

Blood boiled the moment Eva saw Arachne’s state. Time stood perfectly still as Eva’s brain screeched to a halt.

Arachne’s eyes were wide. As wide as they could be with the way her facial carapace worked. Her body was half twisted, as if she had tried to avoid the blade only to miss it by just a few inches.

Her carapace was cracked. Black liquid oozed from the wound. It dripped along the length of the sword, staining the edge black. When it hit the emerald encrusted hand guard, the blood flowed over the gemstones until it reached the very lowest point.

From where it dropped down onto the ground, creating tiny splashes as it pooled on the glassed-over surface.

The pool expanded slowly. Blood seeped from the ground, filling the area around the fighters’ feet. It spread outwards, the circle growing to cover more of the plaza with blood. More than could possibly have seeped from Arachne’s wounds. Even with her severed legs, her body simply couldn’t hold so much blood.

Arachne had her mouth open in apparent shock.

But only for a moment.

As Eva watched, Arachne’s mouth curled into a vicious grin.

Time snapped back into place, reality resettling as Eva let out a short breath.

Arachne was still alive. For the moment, at least. No portal had opened to ferry her back to Hell.

Hands snapping forward, Arachne clamped down on the hilt of the sword, locking it in place and preventing the hunter from pulling it out.

He only tried for a moment longer before releasing the sword.

The doll forced him into a retreat. With his sword stuck in Arachne, there was nothing aside from his armor to protect him from the doll’s blade. He was obviously not willing to take the chance his armor could handle the blow.

He slid backwards, just barely ducking his head under the doll’s sword. His head came back up.

And he caught sight of Eva.

She couldn’t see his eyes. The visor of his helmet was nothing more than a thin slit. Even were she closer, she would have trouble seeing what lay behind it. Yet him noticing Eva was plain to see.

He stilled ever so slightly, angling his helmet further towards her.

Eva broke into a run. She could have blinked across the battlefield, but she was still forming a plan in her mind. Without his sword, the hunter would be far less deadly. Though, given how prepared he and his partner were, Eva couldn’t discount the possibility of traps or secondary weapons.

She was half hoping that he would pull out something else before she got to him. Preferably with enough time for her to react.

One thing was certain, this hunter was not leaving alive.

The other hunter had escaped, barring the suicide theory. It didn’t bother Eva that much. She had been able to confirm that the hunter was crippled. More importantly, they had gotten a hold of the idol. So long as it wasn’t a trap, Eva likely had Juliana to thank for that acquisition. She had been the one to knock over the hunter’s chair, putting her farther away from the idol and making sure she couldn’t teleport away with it.

Without the idol, creating a large ritual circle would be significantly easier.

But seeing what this hunter had done to Arachne… for that alone, he would pay.

Eva did note the blood around the hunter was freezing. White frost started close to him. It spread out in an almost perfect circle up to a few feet away from him.

At first, she considered the notion that the other hunter had come back. While a possibility, there was a far more likely explanation.

His armor had been enchanted to freeze liquids that came too close. The other hunter had never been actively protecting him. She had merely been watching from a distance, perhaps looking for another opportunity to crack the sky.

It hadn’t frozen Arachne’s blood as it dripped down his sword, but perhaps there hadn’t been time. In her momentary shock, the moment had felt like it had taken forever when, in reality, the entire interaction between the hunter, Arachne, and the doll had passed by in an instant.

Eva moved close enough for her feet to touch the black liquid. It didn’t splash or even ripple where her feet came down. Rather, it moved to the sides, allowing her to reach the dry ground beneath.

Despite not having touched her dagger into the liquid, it moved.

Which gave Eva an idea.

She called on the blood, willing a small orb to move up to her hand just as if she were manipulating regular blood.

The black liquid answered her call.

Eva let out a small chuckle as she ran, calling up more and more to surround her in a nearly opaque whirlwind of blood. Of course, with the hunter still able to freeze it, it wouldn’t do that much good. Perhaps she could bury him, but that could give him time to think of a way out.

She would much rather just tear out his throat and be done with it.

The blood twisting around Eva drew in close. It ran along her skin and her carapace. With a thought, she formed it into sharp claws extending from her hands. As soon as the blood was in place, she solidified it into razor-sharp crystal claws.

If the hunter was going to freeze it anyway, she would act first. Better yet, if her theory was correct and the hunter was only freezing liquids, she would still have enough control over her solidified crystals to explode them should any shards make it through his armor.

Eva called up the blood around her feet. It was nice that it wanted to give her a decent grip on the regular ground instead of the likely slick surface caused by the blood. However, that wasn’t what Eva wanted at the moment.

The last—and first—time she had tried this had been during her first trip to Hell. She had stood on liquid blood, using it as a step-ladder to get over a wall. The blood had only been able to act as a platform because of her will holding it together.

Unfortunately, she hadn’t been thinking much at the time. The reaction had been mostly fear driven.

The sounds the Keeper made as he moved, the pain, and being blind had all made the situation somewhat hectic at the time.

Just before she reached the hunter, Eva pushed off the ground. A jump with Arachne’s legs could carry her straight over the hunter with no problems.

The hunter pulled a dagger from his armor, slicing it through the air right in Eva’s path.

Still in the air, Eva kicked. The blood on her feet acted as a solid platform for a mere instant. The strength behind her kick ricocheted her at a right angle. With the hunter turning to slash at her old position, it put Eva right behind him.

Eva wasted no time. There was a small seam near his waist. Larger gaps in his armor just under his armpits and the backs of his knees.

She swiped at the easy to reach spot first. With his arms raised to attack Eva, it was almost like he was offering himself to her.

The crystallized claws extending out from her regular hands barely skimmed the surface of one of his pauldrons. Before Eva even realized what had happened, the hunter had vanished.

Without the expected impact and the unfamiliar weight on her hands, Eva stumbled forwards. Her foot hit against the ground.

In trying to dig her foot into the ground to catch her stumble, her foot slid out from under her. Eva did the splits as she fell to the ground.

She grit her teeth, letting out a slight hiss of pain.

Ice crystals coated her feet. The blood had stayed liquid long enough for her to pull off her aerial trick, but it had frozen soon after. Combined with the already frozen ground, her footing was in a precarious spot.

Eva rolled along the ice, avoiding a dagger in her back thanks only to a moment of forewarning from her blood sense.

He didn’t stick around for long. Somehow, someway, he noticed the doll sprinting up behind him. Her blade sailed clean through the air as the hunter moved to escape.

“Thanks,” Eva said as she climbed back to her feet. She made sure to brush off the lingering ice before planting her feet down again.

A quick glance behind her showed Arachne still around. She wasn’t moving much, just lying on the ground while holding tight to the hunter’s sword. That she hadn’t been drawn into a portal to Hell filled Eva with relief. If she had survived this long after being skewered, Arachne would live.

So long as she kept the hunter from finishing the job.

The doll twitched her head ever so slightly in Eva’s direction. “This… human is a troublesome opponent. He doesn’t move like a human.”

“Fighting is taking its toll on him,” Eva said, swinging her head back around to face the hunter full-on.

He was just standing there, panting for breath. He gripped his dagger tight in his hand.

For all the similarities between wards and enchantments, Eva couldn’t actually tell if it was magical or not. His sword gave off a feeling of revulsion that made Eva want to avoid it. But his dagger looked utterly normal to her eyes.

The bones in his body were slightly misaligned. Especially down in his legs. Were he to take off his boots, he would probably need a cast for several weeks. There were a couple of spots that looked as if they had broken clean through. He was held up thanks only to the rigid armor he wore.

Of course, Eva fully intended to help him avoid such a dismal fate.

“I don’t think he was meant to be in such a prolonged battle. So long as we keep him from escaping, he will wear down until he makes a mistake.”

“I would prefer if this ended sooner. I do have other business I must attend.”

Like standing around, frozen in indecision?

Eva almost spoke her thoughts, but the doll had moved before she could open her mouth.

Rather than follow after only to find that the hunter had moved before she got there, Eva waited. There was almost no chance that he would attempt to engage with the doll using only the dagger. Either he would reveal some other trick from up his sleeve or he would be forced to move.

If he didn’t… well, no need for Eva to get involved in that case.

The second before the doll reached the hunter, he vanished. As Eva expected.

He was dashing back towards the web wall in a straight beeline.

Straight to his sword and Arachne.

Eva blinked towards him with a snarl. Three rapid blinks to disguise her intentions. One to his left, one to his right, and finally one right in his path. Eva kicked off some of the slowly freezing blood to dodge a downward slash of his knife. On her way, she raked the jagged tips of her claws across his armor.

It wasn’t the weak points. Her claws scraped across his chest and arms, shedding thousands of tiny shards into the air. A few even got caught in his armor.

She blinked just a short distance away before he could properly retaliate, clapping her hands together even before she had fully rematerialized. Eva made sure to target only the crystalline shards. Normally, when she clapped her hands, she obliterated any blood that wasn’t near her body. That usually covered any attacks she had thrown. A few special cases, such as when she amputated her legs, required more precise targeting.

In this case, such indiscretion could be bad. She had considered just detonating the entire battlefield. But who knew how much debris would fly around. Not to mention the problem of Arachne. The spider-demon was lying right in the middle of the deepest puddle. Theoretically, she could try only exploding the pooled blood around him.

Theoretically, she could accidentally explode it all.

Not to mention the fact that he froze the blood around him. That would give him enough of a buffer that his armor could probably take any residual impact from the still-liquid blood.

Loud snaps accompanied the clap of her hands. Pockmarks dotted his breastplate and arm guards. A few of the holes even started bleeding, especially those around his arms. Not much red liquid dripped out of the holes. But Eva could still see it. It dripped down his arms, pooling inside his armor.

More important were the holes. Openings for a second, deeper attack.

The hunter had to break off his charge for the sword. Eva’s interception bought time for the doll to close the distance. Again, the hunter chose to retreat rather than meet her blade. He moved quick enough that Eva couldn’t follow. Somewhere to the side.

Eva heard a soft groan just behind her. She started to turn.

Only to feel the cold edge of a blade against her throat.

“Stop her,” the hunter hissed with wet words. Though her back was to him, she could clearly see blood splatter against the inside of his helmet. “And you get to live,” he added after taking in a labor-filled lungful of air.

Her first thought was to simply blink away. She could. She had just before been blinking around him, so he didn’t have any sort of mobile anti-teleportation wards about him.

In front of Eva, the doll was approaching. Not with the speed that she normally used, but walking. The heels of her leather boots made slight ripples in the sea of black blood as she moved. Her sword was held downwards in a single hand with her arm stretched at a slight angle to keep the tip from touching the ground or the liquid.

Her eyes stared forwards with a certain coldness that Eva might have otherwise ascribed to only Ylva. Only, they lacked the dead milky grey of Ylva’s eyes, being a vibrant silver instead.

For some reason, staring into those eyes, Eva got the distinct impression that the doll wouldn’t hesitate to run her through to reach the hunter. It would probably resolve her indecision as well.

More to the point of the hunter’s request, Eva doubted she would be able to stop the doll. At least, not without fighting. Fighting the doll didn’t seem like it was the smartest idea.

So Eva just stood still. She spent a moment, listening to the heavy breathing of the hunter behind her. Each breath came in strained and sounded as if he were gargling blood with every exhale.

It was a wonder he was even standing.

“Tell her to stand down,” he hissed into Eva’s ear as he dug his blade deeper into her throat. It was still not quite cutting. He held it at just the right angle to where most of the pressure came from the flat of the blade rather than the edge.

Even if he did twist his arm, Eva doubted it would be that troublesome to deal with. Small cuts could be healed in an instant. Even deeper gouges could be repaired or at least contained with assistance from her dagger.

In contrast to his already fast heartbeats increasing in speed, Eva was the epitome of calm.

She had a plan.

She just needed a few more seconds.

It would be nice if the doll would hurry up.

To be fair to the doll, her languid approach might possibly be an attempt to give Eva the time to escape. Eva wasn’t sure if the doll would or even could think along those lines, but the only other option was that she was moving for intimidation purposes.

Smelling the rancid stink of sweat pouring out of the hunter’s armor, Eva doubted that he needed anything more to intimidate him.

Tapping her leg, Eva gave the slightest jerk of her head towards the hunter. Just moving her neck a fraction of a hair in the hopes that the doll might hurry up.

While she could escape, as she had already considered, doing so would just continue the chicken chase around the arena.

The doll apparently got the message or got tired of waiting. She kicked off the ground, sending a wave of black blood high into the air as she rocketed forwards.

Eva felt the hunter tense through his armor. She wasn’t sure if he tensed to run or to slice her throat.

Shedding the larger portion of her crystalline claws to avoid jabbing herself in the face, Eva snapped her regular claws up to the hunter’s arm. She clamped down, holding his arm, and the rest of him, in place.

The dagger he had half stuck into her neck didn’t even factor into her concerns.

She was too busy watching the doll.

Three more steps, Eva thought. Two.

Once the doll raised her sword to strike, Eva released the hunter and blinked away.

A clang of metal on metal echoed across the battlefield.

Eva wasted no time, she turned and blinked straight back behind the hunter.

The hunter had both arms in the air. One still held his dagger, dripping with Eva’s blood. The other crossed his dagger, using both his armor and the blade to catch the doll’s sword. Despite stopping the doll’s blade, his own dagger had been half buried into his arm.

Bending her wrists, Eva moved the remainder of the crystallized blood into place. A single spike on the end of each arm. She pulled back and jammed both straight into the hunter’s armpits and pulled away, leaving the spikes in place.

He let out a cry. Knees buckling and arms weakening, it wouldn’t be long before the doll beheaded him.

Eva didn’t give her the opportunity.

Blinking away, Eva clapped her hands as she moved. She didn’t even turn to face the hunter when her hands touched.

A spray of warm liquid hit her back.

She waited for just a moment as more blood rained down, joining with the black demon blood.

Eva let out a long sigh before finally turning around.

The doll stood to one side, covered in red with her sword angled downwards at her side. Eva half expected her to be caught in the blast. If she had, oops. But obviously the explosion hadn’t harmed a hair on her head. Aside from the red, she looked as pristine as she had when Eva first saw her.

As for the hunter…

His legs were still there.

Some of his torso as well. Everything from ribcage and up was simply gone. His armor had split apart like a soda can that had been left in the freezer. One of his arms was lying a good distance away, sticking out of the black blood. Scanning the area, Eva couldn’t see the other.

Or a head, for that matter.

Despite the lack of head, Eva felt quite confident in proclaiming him deceased. The jury was still deliberating over Sawyer, but this man had not been a necromancer.

In fact, now that she thought about it, she wasn’t sure that she had seen him cast a single spell.

Breathing out a sigh of relief, Eva just about sat down for a rest. She did take a quick moment to patch up the hole in her neck before she remembered something.

“Arachne,” she hissed to herself as she whirled around.

The spider-demon was still lying on the ground. Still grasping the sword. Still on Earth.

Still alive.

Eva blinked over.

Arachne was staring up at the sky with her teeth set in a grimace. The moment Eva stepped over her, that grimace turned to a smile.

“Don’t worry,” Eva said before the spider-demon could try to speak. “I’ll take you to the nurse right away.”

That smile immediately slipped back into a grimace.

Just as Eva was reaching out to pull the sword from Arachne’s stomach, she felt another blade against her neck.

“We have yet to resolve our dispute.”

Eva closed her eyes as she drew in a deep breath. She was really getting sick of having blades at her throat.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


008.023

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Arachne hissed through her teeth. Another of her legs was lying on the ground. Attacking with them had definitely been the right choice. Arms, and the hands attached to them, were just too valuable. Especially while she was weaving webs.

It hurt to lose them. When Eva had amputated her legs, she had taken several anesthetics to numb herself to the pain. Arachne hadn’t. And frankly, it hadn’t hurt much at all. The following weeks she had spent regrowing her legs had been more annoying than any kind of suffering.

But the hunter’s sword was odd. It cleaved cleanly through her limbs as if they weren’t even there. The human phrase would be ‘like a hot knife through a stick of butter.’ Worse than that, it reminded Arachne of being hit with lightning from the Elysium Order’s nuns. Not so much the time her face had been exploded—she hadn’t felt much from that incident—but she had been hit with it enough otherwise to remember its feeling.

That feeling of it crawling through her, eating away at even her demonic regeneration.

But still, better to lose a leg than lose an arm.

Though, that didn’t mean that the legs were infinitely disposable.

There were only the six on her back plus her two primary legs in her human form. Well, there had been six plus two. At the moment, there were only the two left.

The hunter was getting desperate. With the way the doll moved and hounded him, he had been largely ineffective in doing anything.

Except for when he sliced off her legs.

Really, that was more Arachne’s fault than anything. She didn’t have to put herself in danger. He would hack his way through the makeshift walls penning him in and escape. Arachne could just let him go instead of intercepting him.

But Eva was out there.

Seeing Eva stand up and walk into the dormitory had been a relief. Feeling her leave towards the city had been a shock. Arachne wanted nothing more than to chase after her. Her Eva could be walking into more danger.

Let’s be honest with myself, Arachne thought as she watched the hunter duck under the doll’s sword only to find himself punted across the plaza by the golem’s fist. Eva is definitely heading into danger.

That was just how Eva worked.

Arachne narrowed her eyes as the hunter crashed into Brakket Academy’s brand new fountain, mostly destroying it. The doll jumped high into the air, dropping down with her blade pointed straight at the ground.

The hunter managed to roll out of the way, dodging the attack just as he had the last four times the doll tried to get the drop on him.

It was enough to make Arachne wonder if the doll couldn’t learn properly. If he could dodge it three times, a fourth was probably not going to help. A fifth certainly not. She might eventually get lucky, but Arachne might be dead of old age by then. And Arachne didn’t even age.

The hunter continued his roll for a short distance before snapping up to his feet and charging the webbing separating him from the rest of the city.

And that was another reason Arachne couldn’t leave to help Eva. He was getting desperate to escape. Perhaps he had noticed Eva leaving as well and wanted to stop her from doing whatever she set out to accomplish.

That was something Arachne could never allow.

Glancing down at her severed leg, Arachne picked it up.

Not to mention, he is really pissing me off.

The tip of her leg was still sharp. This one had been severed at the first joint, leaving it looking more like the top of a spear than anything else.

Pulling back her arm, Arachne threw the leg at the hunter. She didn’t expect it to do much damage. His armor could stop the doll’s sword from slicing all the way through.

But the hunter did stop hacking at the webbing long enough to slice at the flying limb.

He backed away from the webbing almost immediately. The doll was still digging her sword out of the fountain, but Genoa’s golem was moving into position.

With two quick steps, he made it to the doorway of the Rickenbacker dormitory building.

Genoa’s golem crumbled to a mound of lifeless earth.

At first, Arachne thought that Genoa was fleeing, running away like a coward before the hunter could reach her.

A wall rose from the ground in front of the Rickenbacker. A smooth sheet of stone stretched high up, rising even higher than the roof of the building.

Arachne grit her teeth. The stupid woman should have just done that in the first place instead of creating the small pillars that Arachne used to web in the plaza. It would have been far more effective.

The reason why quickly became clear.

The golem was down. A fact that did not escape the notice of the hunter. Getting obviously desperate, he charged straight back towards the section of the web he had just been hacking away at. A section Arachne hadn’t had a chance to repair.

Golem down. The doll was still busy for another few seconds.

Too long. He could be gone by the time the doll got into the fray again.

Arachne grit her teeth and charged. Spare legs or not, he would not be making it to Eva.

— — —

Eva landed right on the edge of the roof, almost falling backwards onto the minefield of wards.

A barrier from a set of shackles that she had landed on saved her. It caught her, acting like a wall to lean against. Juliana wasn’t stopped by the barrier. She went straight through. It was a bit disorienting to have the weight on her shoulders not be stopped by the wall that Eva hit, but the situation quickly resolved itself as Eva shoved off the barrier.

At the same time, she slung Juliana around, dropping her onto the rooftop. Eva hadn’t intended to drop her, but the sensation of being off-balance combined with Juliana’s weight had her moving not quite how she wanted.

“Shackles,” Eva said.

Though her words were unneeded. Eva was kept from interacting with the shackles and the rest of the roof by the barrier. Juliana wasn’t. The moment she hit the ground, her flailing hands disturbed the chalk enough to break the shackles.

And a good thing too.

Eva needed the mobility.

She gripped Juliana’s hand and pulled, dragging both of them out of the way of an icy boulder crashing down right where the shackle had been.

After making sure that Juliana was actually on her feet this time, Eva ignited her hands and started tossing fireballs. It didn’t matter that the hunter intercepted every single one with a flurry of snow. So long as she was busy defending herself, she couldn’t conjure up giant balls of ice.

Eva let out a sharp hiss of pain as something tore into her side. Just because the hunter couldn’t conjure boulders didn’t mean that she couldn’t slip in an icicle.

She realized in an instant what had happened. Eva hadn’t see it coming. When her fireballs hit the hunter’s snowballs, they exploded in a burst of steam, snow, and flames. The icicles came straight through, leaving her with very little time to react.

Worse, Eva couldn’t take cues from the hunter’s body language. Now that Eva was closer, she could clearly see that the hunter wasn’t moving in the slightest.

She had something around her neck, encrusted with gemstones. Some kind of focus, probably. But she barely moved her neck. Her arms hadn’t moved. Her legs were just as still, bent in her chair at a slight angle. It would have been an awkward position to sit in. Eva doubted that she could feel it.

The holes in her back were still there. Someone had tried to stitch her skin up, but they hadn’t fixed up the actual punctures in her spine.

Really, it was amazing that she could cast at all. Eva didn’t need a focus. Her entire body, being mostly demonic, acted as a focus. But even though the woman clearly had a demon’s eye, Eva doubted that would allow her to cast spells with no focus.

Devon had a tentacle for an arm and still used his rings on his other hand.

If Zoe were here, Eva might consider asking her how foci worked with severe nerve damage and how magic flowed through the body. But she wasn’t. Eva didn’t know where she was. Maybe Wayne had teleported her back to her house only for them to get caught up in whoever was attacking Ylva.

Also, probably not a good idea to have idle conversations while fighting.

The fact of the matter was that the hunter was casting spells and she was doing it without moving. The hows and whys just didn’t matter.

Of course, being close enough to see into her body through her blood gave Eva hope. The hunter was undoubtedly paralyzed from the neck down. At least.

To the hunter’s side was a small table. Atop it sat the corrupted idol, the one Nel believed to be the cause of the sky cracking effect.

Eva jumped to the side, avoiding an array of icicles while launching a few more fireballs of her own. None of her fireballs were the big explosive kinds. The hunter would likely see them coming from miles away. Even in her debilitated state. Eva didn’t want explosions being somehow rebounded on her.

Juliana was finally getting her bearings. Only a few seconds had passed since they landed on the roof, so Eva couldn’t blame her too much for being a little stunned. Especially with the dropping and dragging. The icicles pinging off her armor probably didn’t help much either.

But once she finally got to work, she didn’t waste much time in becoming effective.

The rooftop gravel around the hunter exploded. Her chair tipped straight backwards as rock flew up into the sky.

Eva didn’t waste the opportunity. They might not get another one.

She charged forward. There were no wards on this roof to get in her way. Juliana had handily taken care of all the shackles with her explosion. Nothing was in her way.

Not even a wall of ice sprouting from the ground would stop her.

Eva vaulted it, hopping over to the other side with only her hands grazing across the top.

She landed on the other side and purposefully fell to her knees. Between her knees, she pinned the hunter down.

Just in the off-chance that the hunter was feigning her paralysis.

Eva drew back her fist and brought it down, bashing out a few of the hunter’s teeth. She had to keep the hunter as disoriented as possible to avoid becoming an icicle pincushion.

For just a moment, she paused. Eva almost said something incredibly silly. ‘That was for Martina,‘ or something similar. But it was too embarrassing. In the end, Eva just shook her head and punched the hunter a second time.

As she drew her hand back again, Eva opened her fist. She clawed her hand, preparing to tear the hunter’s throat out.

But paused again.

Though a few of her teeth were missing, the hunter was smiling.

Eva felt a chill run down her spine. She had missed something. Some trap. Some weapon.

Juliana!

Had she still had hairs on her neck, they would be standing on end. Eva blinked away from the hunter. The ice wall was still just behind her. It had grown for a few moments more after Eva had vaulted it, but it wasn’t much of an obstacle when she could blink straight up.

Landing on the top, Eva was overjoyed to see Juliana standing right where she had been. Her first thought had been that something had happened to Juliana. That not being the case did not mean that everything was fine. She could hear a light crackling somewhere in the air.

Eva jumped from the top of the ice wall. As she moved, her vials of Arachne’s blood exploded, releasing their contents. The blood swirled around behind her. She landed on Juliana, tackling her to the ground. The blood formed into three overlapping shields around the two of them.

The outermost shield collapsed almost instantly. The second followed, lasting a few seconds longer than the first before succumbing to the heat.

Eva never got to find out how the third shield would have fared. A lurch in her stomach and a lack of building beneath her had Eva falling straight downwards.

She lay still for a moment. Powdered brick and sawdust clouded the area, making breathing unpleasant.

On a brighter note, while the heat was still around, it wasn’t scorching her. In fact, it was at the point where it was almost a pleasant heat.

For her.

Juliana was… not screaming. However, she wasn’t sounding as if she were enjoying a nice vacation on the beach either. Muffled moans and groans escaped from the vents in her helmet.

“Are you alright?”

At her words, Juliana just gave a loud groan. A louder groan.

“Right,” Eva said, taking her eyes off Juliana to look around. Just because she wasn’t dead now didn’t mean that the hunter had expended all of her traps.

While there was evidence of more shackles having been drawn on the walls and what was left of the ceiling of the building they had fallen into, it was all damaged beyond a working state. Probably meant to hinder or trap Eva if she chose to get to the roof from street level instead of hopping across the neighboring buildings. It certainly wasn’t meant to operate after destroying half the building.

It wasn’t hard to imagine what happened. The hunter had obviously been channeling magic into the false idol during their fight. She made another of those sky cracks.

And, unless she had been intending to commit suicide, she was likely still alive somewhere.

“Juliana, I’m leaving for just a moment,” Eva said, turning away.

She had to find out what happened to the hunter and whether or not they were still in immediate danger. Before moving, she did glance down at the obviously in-pain girl. Through her sense of blood, Eva could see no immediate problems. She wasn’t bleeding out or even hemorrhaging blood internally.

“Try not to die. Your mother would kill me.”

“Me too,” she said after drawing in a labored breath. “She threatened me with necromancy.”

Eva smiled for just a moment. It disappeared as she turned away again.

The building had survived the attack for the most part. Half of the roof had collapsed. A good portion of the debris was glassed over similar to the bricks in the Brakket dormitory plaza. The edge of the roof looked to be relatively stable. Mostly because of the brick wall beneath it. It hadn’t collapsed and it wasn’t swaying. Even if Eva’s weight disturbed it enough to cause the whole wall to come tumbling down, the building’s roof was only three stories high.

She would survive a fall.

Eva blinked up to the top and froze again.

She hadn’t been able to see the top of the intact portion of the roof from below. It was a solid sheet of glass. No evidence of the ice wall remained. No chair. Not even splinters of the table. Even the neighboring buildings had their roofs half glassed. A good portion of the wards on them had failed entirely. At least, Eva could detect nothing from them.

Because the roof was a smooth surface, it didn’t take long to find one thing that had survived the destruction.

A simple idol. A statue of a woman in tears, holding her hands up to her face. It was small enough for Eva to carry. About the size of an extra-large water bottle.

But there was no way she was going to touch it.

There was a zero percent chance that it was not a trap in some way or form. The hunter might have teleported away after being knocked down. She might have actually gone through with the suicidal route and vaporized herself in her own attack. But no matter what, she wouldn’t leave behind a weapon of such a magnitude. Even if she assumed that Eva had perished in the attack, there were still other enemies of the hunters around.

And yet, Eva couldn’t leave it where it was. The hunter was gone at the moment, but leaving it behind to rejoin the fight against the armored hunter would let somebody else collect it.

Eva grit her teeth. She had accomplished her objective. The hunter wouldn’t be bombarding them with the idol anymore.

Unless it was a fake. That was also a possibility.

But for the moment, she was going to both assume that it was real and that the hunter had retreated.

Glancing back down into the building to make sure that Juliana hadn’t been attacked while Eva had been distracted, Eva found her to be sitting upright. Which she took as a good sign.

“How are you?” Eva called down.

“Achy. I could use a massage.”

“Just be glad you didn’t get boiled alive in that armor.”

“Yeah, thanks for that.”

“I need you to come up here and encase something in a solid block of metal. Can you do that?”

“Probably.” Juliana slowly got to her feet. There were a few choked off grunts of pain as she moved. Most of them happened as she tried to straighten out her back. Once on her feet, she placed her hands on her hips and arched her back.

The pops were audible even from where Eva was standing.

“The stairs,” she said once she finished stretching and had a moment to look around, “I think they’re gone.”

Eva jumped off the edge of the roof, touching down next to Juliana. “Don’t worry. I can carry you.”

Juliana immediately took a step backwards. Holding up her hands in front of her, she said, “I don’t think–”

“No time to argue,” Eva said, grabbing one of Juliana’s outstretched arms. She used the arm to help heft Juliana up into a fireman’s carry. “Don’t worry. It’s a higher jump than last time, but not as far horizontally.”

“Eva, I don’t–”

“Too late.”

Eva jumped back up to the roof. This time, she didn’t land right on the edge where the brick wall turned into the roof. It wasn’t a very wide landing spot. With a squirming person on her back throwing off her center of balance, Eva wasn’t feeling too confident balancing on a thin beam.

Especially with how she had nearly fallen off the roof the first time, only saved by the shackles.

The glassed over part of the roof that was still intact had looked stable enough.

Eva’s carapace-covered feet touched down on the smooth surface. She immediately froze.

Cracks spread out from where she landed. A spiderweb of lines appeared in the glass, accompanied by high-pitched snaps.

Holding her breath, Eva waited. She didn’t think that falling through the roof would kill her. Or Juliana, for that matter—though she had been banged around a lot, she was well protected within her suit of armor—but it could cause more of the roof to collapse on top of them after they fell through.

The cracking stopped shortly after Eva landed. She let out her breath in a sigh of relief.

“Let’s be careful where we step,” Eva said as she gingerly set Juliana down.

Juliana didn’t move from where Eva set her. “This doesn’t look very safe.”

“Probably not. The sooner you encase that thing in metal, the sooner we can both…”

Eva trailed off. There was something. Something in the air. A feeling she had not felt for some time.

And a feeling she had only felt once before.

Confusion settled in as Eva tried to puzzle out just what was causing the disgusting sensation in her stomach.

“Eva?” Juliana said, voice full of concern. She glanced this way and that as if she was expecting an ambush. “Are you alright?”

Waving her hand, Eva closed her eyes. The feeling wasn’t around them. It was coming from the direction of the school. Not a danger to them. No ambush to be worried about.

At least, not one from the sensation she was feeling. There was still the possibility that the hunter was still around.

“I’m alright,” Eva said, snapping her eyes open. “But someone else isn’t.”

“What–”

Eva was gone. Blinking away as fast as she could.

The feeling was something she had felt before. Right before her first real encounter with the hunters.

When Daru was being tortured. Given that Daru hadn’t ever turned up again, he had probably died as well.

Someone, some demon was in a serious state of injury back towards the school.

Clenching her teeth together, Eva felt her rage burning.

Only one demon had been in direct danger. Only one demon had been fighting with the other hunter.

“Arachne,” she hissed. “I’m not letting you die again.”

— — —

Juliana watched as Eva disappeared, leaving her all alone on the roof. At least the hunter was gone. And the thing Eva pointed out…

Thinning the metal armor on her legs gave her plenty to work with. She set to covering the disturbing little idol with metal. After a few moments, she had a shiny smooth tube. It looked like something that would be launched out of the main guns of a battleship. Except much smaller.

With that done, she tried nudging it with her foot.

Nothing happened.

She picked up the encased idol. Just in time for a small portion of the roof to crack and fall into the rest of the building.

I really need to get down from here, Juliana thought as a few more cracks spread across the top.

<– Back | Index | Next –>


008.022

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Eva hit her fist against the barrier. Unlike her first several hits, the barrier barely flickered. Every time she hit it, her strikes got weaker. She could barely lift her arms. Worst of all, she couldn’t tell if it was doing anything. The barrier was still keeping her stuck on the platform.

Even if it was weakening, it wasn’t going to fall before Eva collapsed.

Really, she should just stop. Her arms were exhausted. So was she. She should just sit down for a moment, shut her eyes, and take a quick nap. Just a little rest to reinvigorate her.

The moment her eyelids started to droop, Eva slapped herself on the side of her face.

Whatever she was thinking, it wasn’t her proper thoughts. Something about the circle was draining her and she was falling into its trap.

More than she already had, anyway. How foolish. One step to the side and she found herself caught already.

There had to be a way out.

Teleporting didn’t work. Neither did blinking. They were among the first things that she had tried. Both felt like running headfirst into brick walls. Her flames didn’t scorch the floor. They just slid off the surface. Despite the roof being made of gravel, it was like there was there was a layer of water over the surface that just made her flames stay inert.

Attempting to use her blood to explode the chalky circle was the same. Her blood couldn’t pass through the barrier any further than Eva could. Like her flames, they didn’t damage the ground outside the circle.

Which made a disturbing amount of sense. If a demon could just use their magic or abilities to break the circle while stuck inside it, nobody would bother with shackles. They would be worthless for any demon more magically inclined than Arachne.

There was one thing she hadn’t tried yet.

Her blood hand spell didn’t need to physically pass through a location. They appeared around the targeted area. If she could make a hand appear outside the barrier, she could rake it across the ground and disrupt the circle. Even breaking a single line should be enough to get her out of the trap.

Failing that, maybe it would at least stop the draining effect.

She was exhausted. Not thinking properly. There were probably ten thousand reasons why she shouldn’t try it—it had to backfire somehow—but she was running out of options and time.

The thing that made her most nervous was the hunter. She was still just sitting a few rooftops away. Her eyes were glued to Eva, but otherwise doing nothing.

Eva kept expecting a crackling in the sky overhead. She had a shield all prepared and ready if such a thing did happen. Her shield couldn’t go outside the barrier, but it worked just fine inside it.

But nothing had happened. Maybe the hunter couldn’t use it so soon after firing it off. How long had it even been since then? Five minutes? It couldn’t have been much more, but Eva had been unconscious for a portion of the time immediately after the initial sky cracking.

Or, more likely, the hunter didn’t want to ruin her own trap so long as Eva was stuck inside it.

It was wearing her down. Even if it didn’t kill her, it wouldn’t be hard to walk over and slice off her head if Eva did lie down and take a nap.

So she had to get out.

Drawing her dagger, Eva made a small slit in her upper arm. If her own blood wasn’t enough, she could use Arachne’s blood later. No sense wasting Arachne’s if this experiment failed.

She drew out a strand of blood, formed it into a ball, and took a deep breath as she plunged her hand in.

Eva had been aiming just outside the barrier.

Instead of her claw appearing outside, Eva found herself thrown back and pinned against the opposite wall of the shackles. Her hand was pulled from the ball of blood, killing the spell near instantly. Eva fell to the ground, collapsed in a pile of worthless blood.

Not a drop of blood made it outside the barrier. It had successfully contained her spell.

She was well and truly stuck. Climbing to her feet, ankle-deep in magically worthless blood, she continued hitting against the barrier with her fist. There wasn’t much else she could do.

If she could get a message off to someone, maybe. She should have kept a hold of Juliana’s cellphone.

Eva jumped back from the shackles as something fell from the sky. It landed with a clatter in a heap just on the other side.

“You didn’t have to drop me,” Juliana shouted as she picked herself up.

Blinking twice, Eva let out a small sigh of relief. It wasn’t an enemy. At the moment, Juliana was even better than someone like Arachne or Ylva showing up.

Juliana was a human. She could waltz in and out of the shackles as if they weren’t there.

Again, Eva sighed. The relief brought with it exhaustion. A sudden lack of adrenaline through her system had the barrier’s draining effect feeling ten times as strong.

“Juliana. I need you to destroy this circle as soon as possible.”

Juliana’s eyes went wide as her head whipped over to face Eva. It wasn’t hard to imagine why. Eva was covered in blood and, currently, sitting in an ankle-deep pool of the stuff.

Normally, such a thing wouldn’t be that big a deal for Eva. Good, in fact. Unfortunately, none of it was controllable. It was all magically created blood. She wasn’t sure what was up with the bleeding walls. That blood seemed usable, or at least, Eva couldn’t remember even running low on blood during the previous fight with the hunter. She hadn’t been thinking perfectly straight, but the blood had just been flowing. She couldn’t even remember cutting herself after the walls had started bleeding.

The only real downside was that Eva couldn’t trigger it. It was obvious to see that the walls started bleeding during emotional distress. Obviously, being trapped in a set of shackles and nearly dying was not quite as distressing as Eva thought it should be. Or the shackles were preventing the effect from manifesting.

Either way, she would soon be out of her predicament.

While her hazy mind was going over useless thoughts, Juliana actually got to work.

She recovered from her brief shock at seeing Eva’s state and got to work. With the rooftop covered in a layer of gravel and the shackles drawn out on top in a layer of paint, an earth mage was its greatest enemy. Stretching out her hand, Juliana churned the gravel.

Eva felt herself drop an inch, landing atop the gravel as the blood escaped its confinement and spread over the roof.

Along with the barrier, the draining exhaustion immediately receded. She didn’t feel reinvigorated, but it was like shrugging off a weight from her shoulders. Breathing was easier and, after standing up, Eva didn’t feel a need to go take a nap.

An improvement no matter how one figured it.

“Thanks,” Eva said just as Saija landed on the roof.

Unlike Juliana, Saija landed on her feet. She touched down on the tips of her toes and stepped forward twice, almost like a dancer just landing out of a particularly tricky jump. The smile on her face wasn’t one of pride or joy. It was the nasty grin of someone who realized their rival just stumbled down the stairwell.

“Big bad Eva getting stuck in such an obvious trap? Here I was thinking you were something special. And after that big speech about fighting too.”

Eva didn’t bother responding. She twisted to one side, feeling the cold of an icicle brush past her skin. It landed in the rooftop with a thunk. Had she not moved, she would have an arm-sized hole in her chest.

The thunk was quickly followed by a metallic clang and a wet squelch.

Both Juliana and Saija fell to the ground. The former had torn clothes and a slight dent in her armor with an icicle lying at her side. Juliana quickly got back on her feet, molding over the dent with fresh metal as she moved.

Saija didn’t get up.

“Ahhaha, what?” Saija said as she lay face down in the gravel. An icicle stuck out of her back. Black blood dripped around her side to join with the blood from Eva’s claws. “It hurts.”

“Watch out for flying icicles,” Eva said, ignoring Saija as she glared at the red-haired hunter. “Traps too. And keep an eye on the sky.”

There were only three buildings between Eva and the hunter. Three trap filled buildings. She could try blinking across. Even blinking out to points in the air to avoid the three buildings. However, she didn’t have a lot of time to think while in mid-air. She could just wind up in another trap.

With Saija down and now shouting about a pain in her back and how much the hunter would pay, Juliana would have limited mobility. Assuming Saija had been the one carrying Juliana in the first place.

“What about Saija?”

“Can’t help her while being bombarded. Since no portal opened, she’ll survive.”

Probably. Eva doubted that she would perish because of her injuries. However, the hunter could still drop a spike of ice right over her head. The best way to avoid that was simply to keep the hunter too busy to fight an already downed opponent.

“We need to move,” Eva said, grabbing Juliana by the arm and pulling her out of the way of another icicle. Once clear, Eva didn’t stop. She continued across the roof towards the next building.

She was only barely watching the hunter as they charged across the rooftop. Juliana had armor covering every inch of her body. She had wrapped it around her head with only a hole for her blond hair to trail out the back. Eva herself was fairly resilient. So long as she used her hands to shield herself from any oncoming icicles, she would be fine.

Of a much greater concern were the wards and shackles. None of them would be good to get stuck in.

Although, she didn’t have much to worry about. Juliana was being extremely proactive in keeping the roof churned. Shackles vanished before Eva even had to worry about standing in them.

The wards weren’t so easily removed. The roof wasn’t large. It shouldn’t take longer than about a minute to run from one end to the other. However, the maze of wards that Eva could sense had her backtracking half the time.

By the time they made it, Juliana had formed an arm’s worth of metal into a shield, holding it out in front of them as they ran.

“We’re jumping across,” Eva said, planting her feet just at the edge of the building.

Juliana screeched to a halt.

“Jumping?”

“Can you make it?”

“I…”

Eva didn’t wait for her hesitation. She scooped up Juliana much like how Arachne had carried her on occasion. The girl was heavy, especially on her upper arms, but she could hold her for the few seconds it took to cross the gap. It wasn’t even that long a gap. A few feet at most.

Arachne’s legs could carry the two of them that far, at least.

Eva took two steps back, giving them a short runway to springboard off the ledge.

Juliana made it. Being a foot forward in Eva’s arms, she sailed onto the next roof with ease. Eva would have made it as well had she not run into another barrier. She smacked into it, stopping straight away with a pain in her hands and face.

And started falling. A tiny bit of the ledge was barely within the barrier.

Eva stretched, grasping for it.

Her fingers scraped along the brick, leaving long gashes as she failed to slow down. Eva kicked a foot into the wall. Brick shattered under her carapace. She still fell a bit more as the bricks crumbled, but managed to slow herself enough to dig her hand into the wall as well.

Only the tips of her fingers made it in before she felt the barrier prevent her from going any further. So long as she wasn’t tipping backwards and falling on her head, she was fine with being stuck for the moment.

Glancing over her shoulder at the alley below, Eva snarled. Rows of shackles had been set up adjacent to one another. No matter where she would have jumped from, she would have wound up stuck. There weren’t any shackles out in the streets, but Eva could feel wards out there. Not as visually obvious as the shackles, but still potentially as problematic.

Worse, the wards would probably hurt Juliana as well. In that line of thinking, jumping over shackles had been the correct choice.

Of course, it would have been better to have checked before jumping. They could have avoided this whole mess.

“Eva?” Juliana called out from somewhere up above.

“Over the edge!”

A metal helmet peeked over the top of the building, accompanied by a metallic clang as an icicle glanced over the top of her head. It wasn’t a direct hit. Just enough to clip the helmet.

But it had enough force to send her forehead straight into the ledge, eliciting another clang.

“I am sick of these icicles,” Juliana said, lifting her head and rubbing her forehead. The rubbing probably didn’t do much given her helmet.

“Enjoy it while it lasts,” Eva said. “It isn’t practical to throw car-sized ice boulders at us from this distance.”

A crumbling of a brick forced Eva to dig her other hand into the wall for stability. She couldn’t dig it in too far. The barrier of the shackle extended only a few inches into the brick wall, not giving her much room to dig her claws in. She wasn’t sure if the barrier extended beyond the exact lines of the drawing or if the building was leaning or otherwise built poorly.

Given that this was Brakket, probably the latter.

Either way, she was thankful for it. While she wouldn’t die from the fall—she had jumped from the top of the dormitory building before—it would still be unpleasant and all the more distance to go to get back up to the roof.

“Worry about the icicles and boulders later. Mind destroying the shackles down there?”

She stretched out her hand.

But the shackles stayed where they were.

“It’s asphalt.”

“I really wouldn’t care if it was reinforced concrete. It needs to go.” Preferably before any sort of secondary effect started up. Eva did not need magical sleep trying to take her while hanging off the side of a building. “If you have to make a sinkhole that swallows up both buildings beneath them, do it.”

Eva paused as a thought occurred to her. “Actually, could you swallow up the building the hunter is on in a giant sinkhole? She isn’t very mobile, so she would probably get caught in it.”

“I’m not my mother, Eva…” Juliana’s voice came slightly strained. And slightly annoyed. As if she were carrying a couch all by herself while Eva just sat to the side and watched.

“Thought I’d ask anyway,” Eva said.

A cracking below her pulled Eva’s attention back to the ground. The center of her shackle was sagging downwards, unable to support itself fully as Juliana moved the earth beneath. Another moment—and several clangs of ice off Juliana’s armor—and a part of the center fell inwards.

Eva immediately kicked her foot back and dug it deep into the brick wall. She repeated the action with her hands and other foot, giving her a much better hold of the wall.

“Thanks,” Eva said.

Juliana let out a few short pants. “Just don’t ask me to do that again,” she said between breaths. “I’m really not so great at manipulating earth I can’t see.”

Eva had really only touched earth magic. Nothing more than dipping her fingers into it. And what she had tried had been inside a classroom. Not enough to really get a grasp on the limitations of the element.

So she just nodded.

Rather than try to climb up the wall, digging holes into it as she went, Eva blinked upwards. Just above the level of the roof. Without hesitation, she blinked straight forwards.

And landed on her feet just a step away from Juliana.

Thankfully, not in another set of shackles. Twice in one day was beyond enough. A third time would just be embarrassing.

She did have to dodge one icicle, bat a second out of the air, and catch a third mere seconds after landing. The third icicle exploded into shards of ice as Eva crushed it in her fist.

Glaring at the hunter a mere two roofs away, Eva dared her to sling a fourth icicle over.

She wished that she had a valid means of striking back. The hunter would just freeze over any blood that came close. Even fireballs had been woefully unhelpful during their previous engagement. Ice could work as a shield just as well as a projectile.

Really, Eva was putting far too many eggs in the basket that kept the hunter from moving. Injured though she appeared to be, it could all be a feint. She could throw off the blanket that covered her chair to unveil forty shotguns aimed right at Eva. As soon as they fired, she might blink straight behind Eva and slice off her head.

At least, that was one of the worse case scenarios that Eva could come up with.

It really didn’t fit with what little she knew of the hunter’s personality, however. The hunter seemed more like Arachne. The kind of person to charge her foes head-on with as much force as she could put behind her attacks. This mostly ineffectual long-range bombarding wasn’t doing much of anything except for annoying the two of them.

Though, if they let their guards down, they could easily wind up like Saija.

“Let’s move.”

Eva took off. She didn’t need to look behind her to tell that Juliana was following. The traps on the roof disappearing as the gravel churned was proof enough of that.

The next building didn’t have a large gap between the rooftops. At least not a horizontal one. There was a few foot drop, but nothing that Eva couldn’t handle with a small jump. Juliana took a little bit longer to climb down as she decided to lower herself down. Eventually, she made it.

Only this roof left before the hunter’s roof.

“Why aren’t we moving?”

“I’m not sure where is safe,” Eva said.

Though Juliana had taken out all of the shackles before them, Eva still stood frozen. Bubbles of magic that Eva had taken to be wards dotted the rooftop. She wasn’t entirely certain that they were wards; Eva had only been in the warding class for a short while. But if the previous roofs had been mazes, this was a minefield.

It wasn’t a long minefield. Whatever was inside the building obviously didn’t need much floorspace. Were the wards gone, Eva could be across the roof in ten steps. Unfortunately, she couldn’t see a path through.

The only real consolation was the short drop. It put them out of line of sight of the hunter, granting them a short reprieve from the ice. Though the hunter should still be able to see them through the walls if Nel was right.

Which meant that the reprieve might only be around until they were successfully distracted or lulled into complacency. She would then rain ice down upon them from above. Possibly with the boulders that Eva had mentioned earlier.

Great. One more thing to be worried about.

“So what do we do?”

“I’m not playing her games. We’re skipping this trap.”

“Skipping? What do– Hey! E-Eva! Wait–”

Juliana’s protests were torn from her mouth as Eva hefted her up and slung her over her shoulder. Perhaps not as comfortable as the princess-carry that she had just used to cross the gap, but Eva needed a proper center of balance and a much better grip.

“Just clear out any shackles you can see when we land. I’m not getting trapped again today.”

Before Juliana could protest, Eva coiled the muscles in her legs and sprung off from the side of the roof.

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